GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 25, 2018

Moral Modeling and Ideology

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:18 am

The concept of “moral equality” is very similar to the concept of “social justice” insofar as both manage to be tautological and oxymoronic at the same time. “Justice” is intrinsically “social,” so the “social” doesn’t add anything except to suggest that “justice” is attained by changing society as a whole on the model of making an injured individual whole in the courtroom. But in doing so it ensures that a great deal of injustice will be committed, because in “society” there is no governing frame for determining who has been injured. Likewise, insofar as “morality” already implies that we have obligations to each other, we are, as moral beings, already “equal,” which is to say, the same, with respect to having obligations to others. The only thing the “equal” adds is to suggest that morality involves making people more equal in other respects, which is of course the source of a great deal of immorality, in the simple sense of doing bad things like stealing and expropriating the property of others.

The “moral model” of the originary scene is a central concept to Eric Gans’s Generative Anthropology. For Gans, the equality on the originary scene, where all share in issuing the sign and consuming the central object, is the form taken by all morality, in any human society anywhere in history. I would agree with the centrality of the concept, but would suggest a different way of thinking about it. For Gans, the concept leads to a distributionist morality: in any social order, some members will contribute more to the wealth and well-being of the community, and the community will correspondingly reward those members; in short, there will be inequalities in wealth, power and status. The moral model comes into play when those with less resent those with more, and demand some kind of compensation: the “accumulators” need to prove that their productions are for the good of all by conceding something to such resentments. Even if I were to concede that this kind of resentment (and the response by the wealthy and powerful) emerges in all societies, I would still have to say it has nothing to do with morality, in any meaningful sense of the word which, it seems to me must include its commonsensical meaning of doing the right thing or at least not doing the wrong thing. Who, in this model, is doing the right thing? The “disadvantaged,” in making manifest their resentment? Even if they have a point, even if they are 100% right, they’re not being particularly moral in advancing their own self-interest. Even if they’re not immoral, they certainly aren’t presenting a model of moral behavior. Is it the “advantaged,” then, who behave morally when they concede wealth, power or participation to the resentful? If they were doing it out of love and a desire to help, the expression of resentment wouldn’t have been necessary; insofar as it is that expression that has prompted them to act, they are also behaving out of self-interest (a desire to avoid crime, riots, revolts, etc.), and therefore not modeling especially moral behavior. Is “society” as a whole more moral? It’s hard to know what it would mean to call a society, but not its members, “moral”; and, at any rate, it just seems as if they’ve institutionalized an extortion racket.

It seems to me that Gans’s use of the moral model focuses exclusively on the periphery, completely neglecting the center—it horizontalizes, and loses sight of the vertical. And you can never develop a coherent moral thinking focusing on the periphery, or the horizontal. On the originary scene, all are equal in relation to the center, equal, or the same in having that relation to the center. As soon as the center is established, so is a kind of “perimeter,” which no one may transgress. Rules emerge regarding the treatment of and approach to the center. They are first of all ritual rules, but moral insofar as they embody the coherence of the community, and everyone’s obligations to each other and the whole. As discourses of the center emerge, and models of action are attributed to figures on the central scene (mythology), new moral possibilities emerge: one can act like the one who rallied the community to repulse an attack by a neighboring tribe, or the one who put out the fire that almost ravaged the entire village, or the one who was always resolving disputes among members of the community. Morality takes the form of enacting these models, which are generalized in the forms of maxims and proverbs. Maxims and proverbs concerned with doing the right thingand not doing the wrong thing, and turning yourself into the kind of person who does right and avoids wrong consistently.

After the long history of kingship, and the penetration of Christian morality into Western society, Gans sees the liberal democratic order as recovering and restoring the originary moral model by establishing equality (and more, and more equality) amongst its citizens. I would first make the point I made previously—none of this implies that anyone is behaving well, or is doing the right things while refraining from doing the wrong things. In other words, liberal democracy has nothing to do with morality. The institutional mechanism by which the resentment of the have-nots towards the haves is manifested in liberal democracy is, for Gans, the alternation in power between the contending political parties (even in multi-party parliamentary systems, there tends to be two dominant parties). Gans has lately spoken of this in terms of a dialectic of “firstness” and “reciprocity.” To put it crudely, some people invent and create things, and reap the benefits; and then everyone else demands a slice of the pie. One party defends the former, one the latter. What I said above about the irrelevance of morality to this kind of arrangement holds here as well. Neither the inventors and creators nor everyone else need to be good and decent people for any of this work. One could speak of a kind of center, and therefore a kind of morality, insofar as the institutions are founded on laws which generate precedents, which in turn provide a model for living good lives. I can’t think of Gans ever discussing, say, the constitutional order in these terms, which would anyway undermine his model: if public morality involves, say, protecting the constitutional order, the main political conflict would be between those defending that order and those subverting it in various ways. But that would be a conflict between good and bad, and therefore not really a political conflict it all—if the established public morality called for selected representatives according to constitutionally prescribed procedures, and those representatives then serving in their offices in constitutionally prescribed ways, how could there be an “oppositional” party? What would it be for—overthrowing what everyone agrees to be good? Even if we could say that there are different ways of interpreted the constitutional morality, if all parties are in good faith trying to do that, they would be continually striving to narrow the differences between them—which is exactly the opposite of what multiparty democracy promotes.

Gans has come to speak of his model as accounting for conflicts that get institutionalized in terms of firstness vs. reciprocity. All conflicts in Western democracies get formulated as some version of the underdog vs. the overlord: the underdog naturally elicits everyone’s sympathy, while enough grudgingly and tacitly admit that the overlords actually keep everything running to prevent their complete extinction—in most cases, at least. But we may be in a hall of mirrors here: Gans is assuming, reflecting upon, and providing a kind of blessing for an order that, of course, pre-exists his model. If one has lived all one’s life in the US, it seems completely natural that blacks, as a whole, would resent whites, as a whole (with each and every black resenting each and every white? To exactly the same extent?), because some whites did bad things to some blacks over a long period of time. However, if we subject all these naturalized assumptions to scrutiny, we can see it’s not very natural at all. What model accounts for a young black man in, say, Chicago, feeling resentment for some elderly white woman in, say Miami, because another white man enslaved some other blacks 200 years ago? Even if we factor in 10,00 events (and why do some get factored in and lots of others don’t?) it doesn’t add up to the tidy model of whites as overlords and blacks as underdogs. If we really want something close to an experiential, commonsensical model of resentment—someone else usurps the center I thought I deserve, or thought no one should occupy (that guy down the block is ruining my property values with his unkempt lawn, my coworker is stealing at work while I follow all the rules, etc.)—then this certainly doesn’t provide it. Such resentment, i.e., political resentment, needs to be ginned up, and a lot of effort and resources need to be expended in doing so, and in naturalizing it. I’ll leave the “high-low v. the middle” model out of this discussion, but suffice it to say that the have-nots themselves are not the ones investing the effort and resources into giving these conflicts their convenient moral narrative structure.

This is even more true for all the other equalizing movements modeled on the civil rights one—women, gays, immigrants, even the environment. A kind of shell game is being played here, and the moral model is in fact critical to exposing and explaining it. Gans has argued recently that victimary thinking or “political correctness” is predicated on the model of a conversation—just as, at a dinner party with a small group of friends, you would go out of your way to avoid offending someone whatever your actual opinion of him, in our social mediated order we react strongly against anything that would offend some of the “guests” at the universal public “table.” (Leaving aside that some may prefer rougher, blunter table talk than others.) I would extend the analogy: the imaginary of modern egalitarianism presupposes that the entire world is a single scene. If that’s the case, then the model of the originary scene would apply. But this is ideology, not morality. Whatever we would take to be the center of this scene is really an anti-center, systematically seeking to terminate all competing centers in the name of victims selected so as to pummel a particular institution or tradition (the target institution or tradition would in fact give us the explanation of the framing of victimhood). Could some kind of global articulation be attempted in a different way? Only if the question is not how to make us all equal and over-abundant in rights, but how to build institutions that can allocate power effectively at very different levels.

The application of this egalitarian version of the moral model to liberal democracy is ideology because it is an attempt to ignore the legacy of the big man—the one who seized the center and became the locus of worship and distribution. The Big Man has never gone away, and is not looking ready to any time soon. In fact, the Jewish and Christian moral innovations would make no sense without presupposing the existence of imperial monarchies. The fact that big men are now selected by tightly controlled processes called “elections,” and blocked and harassed by a series of mostly ineffectual but distorting institutions muddies up that reality, but doesn’t change it. If you don’t want to look at the center, it’s because you don’t want to see the heir of the Big Man sitting up there—the egalitarian version of the moral model allows for the fantasy that the occupant of the center is just a spontaneous synthesis of our individual desires, and therefore not really a ruler. But if there is going to be a ruler, how do we clear the way for him to act morally, ethically and effectively? Regarding governance, this is really the only meaningful question. Ask a supporter of liberal democracy whether the system he endorses is the best way to get the best rulers in place, and ensure they act in the most reasonable way. He will look at you like you are crazy, because he has never asked himself the question—and then will call you immoral for asking it.

Morality doesn’t counter (“check and balance”) the occupant of the center; rather, it refrains from seeking to tear apart that occupant, whether physically or symbolically. Once the center is occupied anyone can imagine himself at the center, and anyone can be violently centralized by a convergent mob of others. To be moral is to resist such processes, whether they target the occupant of the social center or a potential scapegoat on the margins. The institutional component to morality is the construction of practices that removes from our attention to the center everything sacrificial—that is, everything that is aimed at settling some issue among us, the potential convergents, rather than allowing delegated, responsible agents to follow clearly inscribed imperatives for how to intervene under given conditions. Meanwhile, a refusal to violently centralize allows for the emergence of love and kindness—if I’m not looking for signs of provocative, deserving victimage in the other (what is he after? Why is he in my way?) then I can see signs of virtue, a kind of at least potential discipline, and an instigated victimage one wants to protect. Of course, people sometimes need to be criticized, condemned, punished, removed from their positions or even just disliked, and it better to do such things firmly than hesitantly. But, as much as possible, such actions are done in the name of a center, that is, of the system of practices that sanctifies the highest level of deferral so far attained. Morality can’t be uploaded to the political order—people in positions of responsibility can act morally or immorally in those positions, but voting or contributing to one or another, much less protesting, petitioning, etc., can’t make anyone more moral. That’s all just grabbing for bits of power. The moral model always involves soliciting others in the preservation of the center, which means the near center, one that enables the practices which include soliciting others to join in its preservation. That, an actual scene, is where we can look for the instantiation of the originary moral model.

September 18, 2018

Constrained Economies

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:21 am

It might be best to think of markets as networks. The word “market” tends to evoke a society of randomly distributed individuals, each with some property, but with none of them related to any other property owner more than the others. If I buy bread from one baker for $2 a loaf today, I’m quite ready to switch over to another baker for an equally good loaf for $1.95 a loaf tomorrow. The baker himself is quite irrelevant to the equation. But if I’ve been buying from the same baker for 10 years, and I like his bread, maybe like his store, like him, the 5 cents, or even more, won’t make a difference. Especially if the baker is on my way to the butcher, and then the laundry, etc. Of course, I’m presenting an antiquated model here, but which supermarket we go to is similarly determined. Quite bit less, though, at least in some respects—no one thinks the supermarket you go to will miss you, personally, if you start going to its competitor. But that just means the form of our loyalty changes—it’s the specialty items plus the sales plus the fresh rolls in the morning and maybe that you’re more likely to see your friend there. You are “always already” tied into a certain set of connections, you have a built in “bias,” and if you want to make a change it involves wrenching yourself away from all that. You are never all alone faced with a vast range of equally plausible alternatives, which you then proceed to whittle down based on a checklist of pros and cons.

The same thing is true if you want to start a new supermarket, or a new anything. You know how to do something, you’ve been around people who do the same kind of thing, they know about people with money who like people who do that kind of thing, and they know about the kinds of people who buy the kind of product you’re planning to make. You can figure out what kind of person you need to present yourself as so as to be trusted with the money and support of the people in the networks you’re proximate to, you can shape your product and your persona to their inclinations. Again, it’s never you, with an “idea,” “shopping” that idea around to an endless list of people with enough money to invest what you need in your “idea,” and then trying to arrange meetings where you “pitch” it to them. You’re always embedded in a set of relationships with different foci and different degrees of strength, different levels of trust. And, no doubt, various “extrinsic” affiliations, like ethnic, religious, geographic, college ties, and so on help to consolidate these networks. This is all so obvious that I’m sure it’s already well known, but it’s important to point out that there are really a set of gradations from gift and kin networks to the more abstracted relationships normally represented as market ones and, even more, that the introduction of more marketized relationships into more networky ones are just strategies by some up and coming network aiming to usurp power from a more established one. Even when an institution or organization deliberately goes out of its way to break up established networks by, for example, pursuing “diversity hires,” that just means that either the institution has embarked on a path of self-destruction or the network will take on some new form, drawing upon other, emergent networks—perhaps this helps to account for the politicization of so many corporations.

If markets are ultimately networks, and relations between networks, then the whole notion of governments interfering with or intervening in markets must be reconsidered. First of all, that markets are networks would help explain why so much government regulation is ineffective and harmful—the government looks at one part of a dense network, in accord with a narrow purpose, or at the behest of a specific constituency, and tries to affect or control that, without understanding how all the “tissues” of the network fit together. But it also makes government involvement in markets less intrinsically fearful. A de-politicized government, one which didn’t need to be elected, and which therefore doesn’t need to buy off members of one network while being bought off by members of another, which doesn’t need to take sides within the various networks, could simply be part of the networks. Some working members of all the networks would simply be government agents—this would be known to all, and some of the actual agents would be known to be such, while others wouldn’t. And, of course, the government itself needs to buy lots of things, and would therefore be present in many networks. The government’s one demand must be that no network resort to settling disputes by violence that falls below the threshold set for a recognizable justice system. That threshold itself is assessed with the specific networks in mind—even vigilante justice is not necessarily excluded, as long as it doesn’t pass the threshold beyond which there will be nothing but vigilante justice.

The government introduces its own bias into the network of networks (I mean “bias” here more in the sense of a “tilt” that leads objects to roll in a particular direction than in the sense of deliberately favoring some over others). As an economic agent itself, it has more need of some things than others (the most advanced weaponry, for example), and as the agent responsible for maintaining a coherent social order, must promote some things over others (the population must be fed, energy independence, to the extent possible, is a good thing, etc.). The networks will be constrained accordingly. In this, any ruler will take other, presumably successful, rulers as a model, while also considering that any decision modifies the results of previous decisions made by the ruler himself and his predecessors. These considerations, and the reference to models, provides ways of thinking things through and arguing for one decision over another. In constraining the networks, meanwhile, the government makes itself un-networky, which is to say hierarchical and imperative: the government must value continuity, consistency and chain of command over all else. Hierarchical imperatives will therefore reach into the networks as well, in the form of establishing guarantors that constraints will be adhered to, and in the form of some kind of conscription, according to which hierarchs in the networks do government work, at government pay, in some kind of rotation.

The networks are all oriented, “tropistically,” toward the center. Money is the means by which agents compete within the networks so as to prove their usefulness to the network and to the center. Money itself consolidates networks while allowing for new entrants—I think Mises was right to say that when the government puts money into circulation, those who receive it first are advantaged over those who receive it later, and who are we to imagine receives it first if not the most networked? Still, someone receives it last, and having money enables one to access a network, on the margins, without actually being known by the participants in that network. Those with some money on the margins, the “end consumers,” make it possible to determine, once all the biases have had their play, which economic agents should be recognized and elevated within the networks. (This may be a much more orderly version of how much of this works now.) But the social nature of capital would need to be more explicitly recognized. The most common complaints about capital and capitalism today provide us with a frame for speculating on ways of doing this. First, capital eviscerates communities and even countries by exploiting its mobility so as to first, undermine living standards at home and eventually leave those affected devastated by exiting the country in search of cheap labor, lower taxes, less regulation, etc. Second, capital homogenizes by replacing local cultures and norms with standardized national and ultimately global ones; while what is lost in the first case is extremely palpable, the losses in this second case are more intangible, and more balanced against the gains (the only gain even adduced in the first case is cheaper goods, which is really only a gain for those who haven’t lost anything in the first place, i.e., the “salaried” employees who are not dependent on an industrial base).

I would keep in mind that the first process, in particular, was set in motion by the conditions created in the late 60s and into the 70s by the welfare state and widespread unionization, which created costs for capital beyond any gains in efficiency. (The second process is more endemic, even constitutive.) Still, the process continued and even accelerated and became more systematic once the unions were broken and taxes dramatically lowered. The reason is simple—politicians on both ideological wings became completely dependent on the support of transnational corporations, even while this dependency was inflected along different ideological lines—neither party, in the US at least, even refers to working conditions or workers at all, other than the completely anomalous Trump. If you listen closely, it’s easy to get the sense both parties hate wage workers. The solution is not to bring back unions, especially if a de-politicized order is based upon disallowing organizations predicated on perpetual conflict. But the government can certainly constrain these known propensities of capital.

In the second case, constraints can be imposed so as to limit standardization, or produce diversities within standardization. Local boards could propose the constraints to be imposed, and if they do so credibly and in good faith, keeping in mind that the final decision will not be theirs, their recommendations might be taken very seriously, maybe even routinely incorporated—this in itself would have a “heterogenizing” effect. In the first case, perhaps a certain amount of the capital held and gained by companies can be held in trust by the government, to be returned to that company based on that company’s adherence to a series of graduated constraints involving working conditions, wages, community investment, stability, commitment to stay put, and so on. Companies that wish to surrender some of their capital in the pursuit of cheaper labor and greater profits aboard might be free to, since that would also provide what might be needed economic information and the repatriation of profits. And agreements with the countries capital might decamp to could also help contain such movements. In the course of all these decisions being incorporated into rule, a well governed order would make the central source of economic value the consistency and coherence of government decision making itself. A company that eschews short term profit in cheaper labor abroad would do so in the knowledge that its government will constrain the market at home so that, while it might be good to have newcomers nipping at the heels of established companies, large scale waves of investment and “dumping” will not be permitted to overwhelm normally functioning companies. This approach is clearly a “decelerationist” one, from which it further follows that innovation will be encouraged but so would efforts to mitigate the effects of innovation on companies, workers and consumers alike. Again, it seems to me that constraints, rather than more targeted interventionist approaches, will be most effective here. Perhaps constraints would determine the ways innovations need to be embedded in existing networks, structures, institutions, and disciplines. Ultimately, it would be simply taken for granted that of course we take a holistic approach to economic and technological developments, once the sociopathic reduction of all corporate decisions to the imperative to maximize shareholder value is a distant memory.

September 11, 2018

Signing Up

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:42 am

The human is that being for whom repetition is problematic. A sign has meaning insofar as it can be repeated, which is to say, repeated as the same sign. We can go further and say that the meaning of a sign is precisely the various ways and occasions upon which it can be repeated. One’s understanding of a sign is demonstrated by the ways one is able to repeat it and have it accepted as that sign. But since a sign refers to a shared center, others, whose cooperation, or even attention, cannot be ensured, meaning can never be guaranteed in advance, just like you can never be sure whether a joke will fall flat. It is conflicting desires and resulting resentment that makes signs possible, necessary, and problematic. All culture is created so as defer violence and protect the center that enables us to do so, but in that case it might be more minimal to say that all culture is concerned with making repetition as certain as it needs to be—to ensure that this sign remains this sign for as long as and for whom it is necessary.

The originary hypothesis assumes an event at the end of which one thing is significant (the gesture of aborted appropriation) and one thing is sacred (the central object)—meaning is completely concentrated in that gesture—the rest of the world is (now) “meaningless.” If meaning is articulated by the ostensive gesture, though, it must articulate the entire bodily posture of the individuals involved. Pointing toward the central object while standing still, and bending slightly backwards, would help endow the sign with meaning in a way that pointing toward the object while leaning, or creeping, forward would not. There would be a tendency to saturate the human bodies with meaning as the originary event is repeated, both in ritual and in its extension to other practices. Certain situations would call for certain kinds of accentuation, and certain kinds of downplaying, of rendering “null,” certain components of the sign. We learn to calibrate the accentuation and nullification—any English speaker can make out, for the most part, the same sentence as spoken by an American Southerner, a New Yorker, a Midwesterner, a Brit, an Australian, etc., which is to say we can control for accent when we’re interested in a specific kind of meaning (semantic); at the same time, the accent can at times become an important part of the meaning.

I would assume that the ability to exercise such control is a consequence of millennia of learning and the development of media that singled out specific features of meaning, the most important of which media I would consider to be writing. The earliest sign users must have moved quickly from that one, single, meaning, to a world bursting with meaning. The slightest move by another member of the group would take on the form of some kind of menace, suggestion or invitation, which must be directly responded to, because there could be no question as to the meaning of the movement, and that meaning must be “verified” or extended, which is to say, repeated, by a complementary sign/movement. The surrounding world would also be replete with meaning—every animal, plant, change in the weather, etc., would be saying something. And those signs would be repeated as well. A “system” would develop, but it would look nothing like Saussure’s “system of differences,” or grammatical or logical systems; rather, it would be a system of what Marcel Jousse called “gestes,” in which sound/gesture/posture articulations, each with its own balance and rhythm and communal meaning, would complement other such articulations, in a never ending process of generating social coherence. Coherence would result, which is to say repetition relatively ensured, by making this gestural-oral system finite and exhaustive, such that every sign can be seen as indirectly referring to all the others. It is the textual reduction of meaning that creates the infinite system. (Is there, then, a tendency in the “secondary orality” of electronic communication, to return us to exhaustive finitude?)

In a finite, exhaustive, or ergodic system, all signs must ultimately be coming from the same place: the center. All individuals are mouthpieces, or enactments, of the center—this doesn’t imply a lack of individualization on the part of early, gestural-oral communities; in fact, there are many reports that the more primitive communities contain a greater richness of individual differences than our more civilized ones, and I think this is credible because trying to speak for the center might easily generate far more diversity than striving to distinguish oneself from it, which actually gets monotonous pretty quickly. It is also the center that would enable a hierarchy of significance, making it possible to distinguish between higher and lower stakes events—every gesture by any other member of the group that suggests in the slightest one’s lesser value within the group doesn’t necessarily have to be answered with maximum and immediate force. But you know that because the center, in the form, say, of a ritually consecrated ancestor, who is at the same time you, tells you so. This is to say that most insistently and carefully repeated signs create a tissue and texture that helps ensure consistent repetition all around—unvarying repletion of meaning would be extremely wasteful.

The most consistently and completely meaningful system, then, would have been sacral kingship—there, all meaning flows from the center and is directed back to the center, with that center claiming its centrality by way of its descent from the origin of the group, which is to say humanity, itself. After sacral kingship, we no longer speak from within the center. I hope it’s needless to say that no nostalgia for sacral kingship is implicit here: the point of remembering it is to explain why the reductions of meaning that followed sacral kingship tended to assume the surest way of maintaining stable repetition was by distinguishing the individual from the center. Just as the distribution of money to buy victims for the sacrifice replaced the collective presence of the group on the scene, the distributibility of the center leads one to focus on the rules for distributing the pieces. This involves a diminishment of meaning, or “disenchantment.” It’s logical to assume that the trajectory to be followed here is to keep “clarifying” meaning, and distributing it in discrete, measurable chunks. There will always be significant power centers that find this trajectory convenient, and those power centers will have large constituencies, precisely because it produces conveniences more broadly.

The counter to this process is a re-embedding of meaning irreducible to its calculated distribution. Clearly, a return to pagan ritual and sacral kingship is not an option here. In this case one must accept the cliché that in order to get out one must go through. The new mode of thinking initiated by the originary hypothesis provides us with a conceptual vocabulary for describing, with great detail and accuracy, every single desire and resentment, and to do so in terms that would not be chosen by the bearers of those desires and resentments but that would be simultaneously very difficult for them to deny. This kind of “parrhesia” provides for a convergence of GA with much of the alt-right and neo-reaction, both of which similarly wish to map out, openly and honestly, the “mechanics” and rules of interaction between individuals and groups. It is only such a peeling back of illusions and ideologies that can make a “formalist” political project, in which actual power relations are formalized, possible. (Without a disciplinary space trained on all the various articulations of power, how could the actual relations be formalized?) Pursuing such an inquiry is the highest vocation of the human sciences.

The question, then, is how does this contribute to the re-embedding, the re-repletion of meaning? First of all, I will note that an indication of how depleted meaning is for us is that the most meaningful thing one can do today is mock, ruthlessly, the circulation of the clichés and commonplaces that have hidden large chunks of reality for decades. What is eminently mockable is diminishing in meaning (the mocking accelerates this process) which means that a process of diminishing returns is in play here. It’s very interesting to consider that, for example, as Jean Baudrillard proclaimed long ago (and Slavoj Zizek, among other postmodern thinkers, have a good sense of this as well), we can all cease to believe in any of the propositions of the “dominant ideology”—we can all come to realize that liberalism, equality, democracy, rule of law, etc., are all jokes—and that the system can go on, because of as much as in spite of this. But Baudrillard, Zizek and the others don’t know that meaning is deferral.

To describe desire and resentment in “long form” is to make explicit much of what is usually left tacit; it is to put what usually remains on the ostensive and imperative levels into declarative sentences. X resents Y at work for getting the better office. It would take quite a few sentences to unpack this resentment into a series of explicitly stated relations of difference, power, signs of status, the limits of possible responses to this “injustice,” the concept of ‘injustice” itself, the reasons for the limitations on possible responses, and so on. Think about explaining things like desire and resentment to intelligent, non-human beings. This has always been the goal of metaphysics, and more narrowly, the human sciences, even if mathematics replaces some of the propositions that would be required. But metaphysics and the human sciences have done so to reduce to a minimum the hold ostensives and imperatives have on us—the liberal millennium, which not coincidentally looks a lot like the singularity, would be the complete replacement of the ostensive and imperative realm by the declarative. That would inaugurate the “Age of Reason,” but we would find all those declarative themselves devoid of meaning, since they would never actually be referring to anything; or rather, they would have pure power meanings, as they would be built to subjugate anyone insufficiently proficient in their articulation.

But if we are creating a new human science that has a different goal, which is to use declaratives to study the intricate networks of ostensive, imperative and interrogative sentences that in fact make them possible and are inscribed within them, we are free to note the inherently parodic results of precisely the most accurate and detailed transcriptions of desires and resentments. There is a good reason that pretty much all good modern literature is in one way or another a satire of disciplinary or, more broadly, “hyper-declarative,” thinking. The explosion of language generated by the human sciences can so easily be used to show the desires and resentments of the human scientists themselves. This satiric take on the disciplines is effortlessly included in the new, originary, human science, which defuses desires and resentments by exposing them, while also revealing the social relations we assume and therefore the obligations we take on in nevertheless experiencing slightly more deferred desires and resentments.

So, the “red-pilled” or “uncucked” right, whatever it will be called and whatever it will be, is inherently a satiric operation (perhaps the first constitutively satiric politics ever). Not “satiric” in the narrower sense of criticizing present day norms, mores, and “follies,” but more like what Wyndham Lewis called “metaphysical satire,” one directed at humans as repeating beings who never quite get repetition right. Satire, more than other literary forms, is based on repetition—it purports, unlike “realism,” to represent actual and not merely possible actions (for satire, even when fictionalized, to work we need to have specific targets in mind), and to do so in a way that is “distorted” from the standpoint of the target but truer for the satirist. It is therefore also the most responsible form because its goal is to help continue to check and improve our iterative capacities (is that portrait like so-and-so or not? How can we tell?). It therefore is well suited for the project of replenishing the world with meaning again, as it implicates the fundamentally paradoxical nature of our being as sign users (signers?). with its help, we can see signs of the origin of our human being everywhere.

September 4, 2018

Moral, Ethical Governance

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:26 am

No theory of government could be more insistent than liberalism that government must be morally neutral, and not choose between different versions of the “good life.” And no form of government is more perpetually frenzied by moral panics than liberalism. The contradiction in the liberal stance is obvious at first sight, has been often pointed out, and need not detain us too long. If your theory of government is that the government is to remain neutral between different versions of the good life, then the full fury of that government must be brought to bear on whomever would put forth their practice of the good life as superior to others. Now, in a certain sense, everyone does this, making liberalism especially incoherent on this point—even your live and let live guy is presenting living and letting live as a superior version of the good life to be protected by the state over others, with its own privileged attitudes, legal regime, and so on. But the real force of the liberal argument is against a state religion, since that provides for the most systematic imposition of a notion of the good life, so the state religion of liberalism is the transgression of all religions that would purport, even gently, even tacitly, to represent the good life, while the state theology of liberalism is to find a state religion lurking in the doctrine and even daily habits of your political enemies.

But liberalism’s frenzied anti-moral moralism has made the consideration of some very simple and basic questions almost impossible. Could anyone deny that the ruler or the state could act in ways that tend to make its subjects better people? At the very least we should be able to get some agreement that it could make its subjects worse people—by compelling them to engage in vicious acts, for example. And if it can make them worse it can make them better. Shouldn’t it be doing that, then? At this point in the conversation, the liberal, at any point on the spectrum, from libertarian or American conservative to Antifa communist, is hurling nasty epithets at you. You are getting called totalitarian, authoritarian, socialist, communist; you are being told that “this” didn’t work in a long list of places, you are being asked “who are you to say…,” etc. In other words, you are being dragged into a LARPing of WWII and the Cold War. Not a single liberal has ever genuinely scrubbed the idea of the state as the “night watchman” out of his head, or failed to add all of the state enemies of the past century to the list of examples of violations of this norm.

In some recent posts I have laid the groundwork for addressing this issue. From my discussion of morality in “Fraud and Force,” we could say that responsible parties should establish institutions that extract from a situation in which some violent centering is possible the facts of the situation and the mode and degree of responsibility of all involved, freed from the logic of the vendetta. This institutions can be local, private, even “vigilante” ones—the point is not proceduralism, but disciplinary spaces where authoritative individuals are entrusted with search for the truth, the best remedy, and the preservation of the peace and cohesion of the community—since these different aims can be at odds in some cases, those entrusted to arrive at coherent decisions are given a great deal of leeway—if they are to be judged, it is to be after the fact, and with an eye toward improving the system. Those entrusted, to be more precise, must be those willing to draw some of the violent centering toward themselves, if necessary. Furthermore, we can say that the government has an interest in every individual having opportunities to reduce the “meaning gap” I identified between “speaker’s meaning” and “sentence’s meaning,” between the way one sees oneself and all the ways one is seen by others. Does this mean the government must guarantee to everyone a meaningful life?, interjects the fuming liberal. First of all, it means the government wishes to see the entirety of the social order bound up in disciplinary spaces, or what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “practices,” in which forms of human excellence are made possible, even created, by constrained, systematic and cooperative activities. Finally, what binds these moral and ethical imperatives together is the existence, discussed in “Way, Way, After Sacral Kingship,” of a similar gap in the issuance of any imperative—a gap between the imperative issued and the imperative obeyed and enacted, always under conditions not completely accounted for by the “imperator.”

Moral, ethical governance involves protecting existing practices and disciplines, helping them to become more practice-like and disciplinary, and providing the conditions for other activities to become practices and disciplines. The simplest way of doing this is by establishing constraints to be adhered to by any organization or institution incorporated by the government, which is to say any organization or institution. These constraints would range from institution specific to society-wide; from purposeful and efficiency-oriented to aesthetic and even arbitrary. All buildings, or all buildings of a certain kind, might be required to include a particular design; how they have to include it might be loosely or tightly prescribed (some may have it prominently exposed, others may hide it in some corner). Of course, similar to the safety regulations in modern societies, all buildings might be required to be prepared for fires or other emergencies, but it’s important that “regulation” not be solely functional. There need to be some constraints that are devised through collaboration with representatives of the institution itself, but others must solicit the contributions of surrounding and interconnected institutions, while yet others must be the government imposing the stamp of the social order itself on all institutions. There has to be a game-like or play-like structure to these meta-constraints, because otherwise the government is reduced to liberal utilitarianism, leaving itself to be assailed constantly for providing less than maximum happiness for the greater number, rather than interwoven into the entire social fabric as the guiding thread.

Rather than public discourse getting obsessed with rights, needs, inequalities, inequities, etc., it would always be framed by discussions of the state of constraint. More important than whether injustices are allowed in or committed by a particular institution is addressing the anomalous nature of rule. Any system must have it anomalies, because any system must have some element within it that is simultaneously outside of it and therefore can’t be completely assimilated to the terms of the system itself. More precisely, the founding, or chartering, element of the system is anomalous insofar as it judges everything else within the system but can itself be judged, indeed, is judged, at least tacitly, by every action taken within that system. This is the permanent anomaly of any system—the incommensurability of responsibility and power that can be minimized (the discipline and practice of government is concerned with nothing more than minimizing it) but can never be abolished. You can’t know whether someone can do something until he tries to do it, and once he gets started it will become something at least a bit different than he set out to do. The purpose of constraints is to “thematize” the anomalous inside/outside position of the one in charge, so that any judgment assumes he is intrinsically part of the game, and not an imposition on some spontaneous order.

This anomaly pervades all systems, right up to the top, and it must be faced, because any attempt to abolish this anomaly will merely be an attempt to conceal it under some procedural “plug.” So, there must be an inviolability granted to those in charge—to put it simply, someone charged with doing or running some collaborative effort must be given every benefit of the doubt by everyone he must ask to help him do it. This may mean making the wildest excuses for the most evident failures, anticipating failures based on the ruler’s previous performances and trying to prevent and minimize them in advance without attempting to take any credit that would reflect discredit on the ruler. Any possible judgment is displaced onto the implementation of imperatives in such a way as to reconcile whenever necessary their authoritative source with their benefit to the institution. The supreme ruler, we may assume, has agents in every institution providing him with accurate information regarding the performance of his subordinates; moral and ethical participation in an institution means being simultaneously ready to become such an agent upon request and never acting like one unless requested. To arrogate to oneself such a position is to point fingers outside of any established framework, i.e., it is to violently centralize others; it is also to try and control the meanings one gives off, rather than allowing one’s practice to speak for itself, to ramify among the responses of others. In other words, it is immoral and unethical upon the terms laid out in “Fraud and Force.”

Installing this inviolability confronts what may be the most pernicious and tenacious element of modernity. Rene Girard, in his account of mimetic desire, distinguishes between “external” and “internal” mediation. In external mediation, the model one (along with others) imitates is outside of the system, and therefore beyond reach of any rivalrous claims. Obvious examples here would be gods and kings, but it would include any model separated by a formalized distinction from his imitators, such as a member of a higher class or caste—one peasant cannot compete with another to become a noble. With internal mediation, our models are not fundamentally different from ourselves, which means there are no limits to competition, and no established models that could put an end to it. Girard argues that with modernity, external mediation has been completely replaced by internal. My argument here implies the need, in the face of deeply entrenched commitments to internal mediation, to restore external mediation. The responsibility of the ruler, sane, moral and ethical government, requires placing certain people, in certain positions, beyond criticism. (In an interesting discussion, in the wake of the Michael Jackson trial which, following the O.J. Simpson trial, raised the question of whether it was possible to convict a celebrity of a crime, Eric Gans contended that the modern celebrity system serves a purpose similar to external mediation—but in democratic, liberal market terms, that can only have whatever effectiveness it does precisely because celebrities aren’t really responsible for anything.)

What this renewed external mediation might look like must remain an open question. It’s hard to imagine saying that this individual, who is now being appointed school principal, cannot be criticized—even though, yesterday, when he was a teacher, he could be mocked ruthlessly, and once he steps down he can be endlessly attacked for his decisions as principal. (In highly functional organizations and enterprises, things do work this way, so it may be possible to have a social order as whole do so as well, eventually—but even then we could never assume this to be the case once and for all.) In other words, some kind of aura would presumably have to surround the individual preceding and following his tenure in a particular position. In other words, the recreation of external mediation seems to imply the establishment of something like permanent class or status distinctions. The model of rule I am proposing is to a great extent a “team” model—someone who wants to get something done appoints someone he knows is best able to do it, and that person in turn assembles a team of the best he can find—who will be absolutely loyal to him because they also want the job done and they know he is the best person to lead them; while he, in turn, knows that since they are “on board,” he barely has to issue them orders, much less boss them around. All organizations and institutions approximate this model as best they can. Now, families are also teams, as are neighborhoods and towns, and these kinds of teams, if they attain leadership positions, will make it part of the game to continue to deserve it. We have never, in fact, had any kind of society in which family names didn’t mean something, and that’s in large part because in any society families can and do invest a great deal of energy into ensuring they do. A genuine aristocracy would probably have to be landed, but an absolutist order would have to at least be at ease with informal aristocracies, which get formalized in various provisional ways (the ruler might give a particular family firm an established position in some industry, or establish a university under the aegis of an especially accomplished academic family). Members of such families would then have a kind of penumbra of inviolability, a benefit of the doubt, before entering the specific positions where they will really need it. Needless to say, preserving the positions of such families once they have entered decline would allow the institution in question to be pervaded by practices and disciplines incompatible with its own. In the end, we can never outrun the anomaly, or the paradox of power, but it can be made generative: the study of the temporality of imperatives (at what point have they actually been obeyed or disobeyed?) feed back to those issuing imperatives, helping them to defer, hopefully indefinitely, the becoming crisis of the anomaly.

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