GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 27, 2018

Naming, Origins and the Necessary Self-Referentiality of Social Order

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:13 am

Everything is nothing but the unfolding of its event of origin. To know something is to know its origin; even more, it is to participate in its origin. Constitutive of the originary hypothesis is the assumption that human being emerged in an event, which means that emergence is irreducible to any causes that might have been used as explanations. The reason for this assumption is found in the nature of language itself, which cannot be explained naturalistically. There is no path from whatever “signs” animals exchange to human utterances that can be understand even in the absence of anything in the world to refer to. We don’t need to be standing next to a mountain to speak about mountains. How can that be? Did we (English speakers) all at some point agree to call mountains “mountains”? The silliness of this idea is immediately apparent—in what language would we have articulated this agreement, and when would we have agreed to use the words used in forming the agreement?


It is possible to refer to the emergence and creation of the sign on the originary scene as a kind of “agreement”—that, apparently, was the point of Rene Girard’s critique of the originary hypothesis as a “social contract theory.” But the notion of “agreement” cannot account for the paradoxical emergence of the sign—all the participants on the scene point to the central object and thereby “name” it as the central object, which is to say, as “God”; but they are able to name it because it is “already” God, and has already repelled their advance. The paradox of the event replaces the infinite regress a philosopher might find (infinite regress is an effect of the declarative sentence). Part of this paradox is that the “referent” is both present (an object of appetite, right in front of the group) and absent (an object of desire and the transcendence of desire) and this is what makes the sign, and then signification in general, iterable, under circumstances that need not be “similar” to its first use. Gans somewhere says that “God” is the only word whose meaning and referent are identical, which further embodies this paradox. The “meaning” of the word “God” is that which makes it possible for us to speak with each other, which we tacitly refer to whenever we speak. As Gans elsewhere says, every word, indeed, every utterance, is the Name-of-God.


It seems strange that the primary importance of origins has not played much role in originary social thinking. Too much focus, perhaps, has been directed towards ends, based on a model of the completed scene. Perhaps there is something frightening about pursuing the consequences of the claim that all meaning, which also means all truth, all right, all legitimacy, is located in origins, and only in origins. As soon as we move past the most primitive social orders, origins must become contentious, and if origins are as imperative as our hypothesis suggests, it is very hard to see how such contentions could be settled. The notion of legitimation by origins is fraught with seemingly unresolvable difficulties. What is the “real” origin of a social order? For most societies, the answer lies back in times covered by myths and legends; the problems for a social order whose founding is accompanied by comprehensive documentation may even be worse—what about contradictions in the founding documents, the hidden powers, interests and influences only partially registered in those documents? A documented founding can be studied, and new studies undermine the conclusions reached by the previous ones. And, moreover, what if the founding is dishonorable, or unacceptable in some way? Why should be obliged to look back to such an event to understand and justify what we decide now?


The problem with all of these objections is that they assume that the question is, origins or something else? But there is nothing else. Your critical, rationalistic, moralizing attack on revered origins has its own origins, in another, disciplinary, event. Whatever pact could be forged to reconcile the differing accounts of origins, or whatever act of subjugation could install one at the expense of others, also has an origin. Nothing is done without precedents. The American founders, by their own accounts, rummaged through a vast collection of constitutions, ancient and modern, before framing their own, and then ended up creating an imitation of the British institutional structure. Since we know there is an origin, the exact details of that origin become less important. We know that what makes the origin an origin is that it placed us before a center, and we can’t help but be aware of the social center(s) around which we congregate with others. The historical study that goes into clarifying the actual foundations of a community are essential, but the more fundamental question is how to represent the occupation of the center as a succession of origins, each of which seeks to retrieve an origin prior to the previous one. (Going forward always means going back.)


But, we might say, the Bolshevik revolution was certainly an origin—how could we contend that it sought an origin prior to the one claimed by the Tsarist dynasty? First of all, let’s dwell briefly on the fact that the Bolshevik revolution was an origin, and was recognized as such by succeeding generations of Communist Party leadership. It’s interesting that a political project that defined itself by its future-orientation should concern itself so with its origins, as evidenced by the Lenin cult and even the need to airbrush out of existence disgraced members of the revolutionary generation. The very fact that the past is filled with unrealized possibilities means that we are always situated within the origin. In fact, leftism is across the board obsessed with founding events—in the US, with the martyrs of McCarthyism, Emmett Till, the March on Washington, Stonewall, etc., etc.—verging, even, on a kind of ancestor worship. The history of the various leftisms, like any history, is littered with sacred names; indeed, much of leftist politics can be seen as a series of attempts to sacralize new names for which future generations can be asked to sacrifice (Christine Blasey Ford’s name will be solemnly intoned decades from now as the history of women’s liberation from frat boy groping is commemorated). Marx and Engels even identified the achievement of communism with the restoration of primitive communism, on a “higher” level. And if Eric Vogelin’s identification of modernity with Gnosticism is valid, modernity, which is to say, leftism, seeks after the most primordial of origins, a good creation prior to the evil, false one within which we are imprisoned. But if traditional communities are grounded in sacred origins, and so are revolutionary modern ones (as in American Constitutionalotry), what’s the difference between the two? How do we find the thread of tradition amidst the clutter of Gnostic mock-origins?


We can acknowledge we’re looking for origins and therefore do so in good faith, for one thing. The left can’t really admit that “Anita Hill” is a sacred name, because the only modes of explanation available to them would lead to the unhelpful conclusion that such names are sacralized because it is useful to do so in pursuit of power. They must represent themselves as even more cynical and power-hungry than they actually are. But those modes of explanation have their origin in the founding event of any attack on tradition—the identification of naming as an instrument of domination. Such a revelation is, of course, possible with any name, and the experience of discovery can be thrilling. That everything in the world is named, that there are obvious, unquestioned ways of talking about everything is self-evidently part and parcel of the way the human world is organized. So, to attack the authorities, point out that all the names of institutions, places, and practices, are integral to their authority. It’s undeniable that the way we talk about reality helps keep reality the way it is. And it’s always at least possible that one could speak about things in a different way. Pointing that out gives one a permanent critical edge.


If we see origins as the source of legitimacy and object and condition of possibility of knowledge, then that’s all we really can and therefore want to speak about. Let’s shift the terrain to talk of origins. If we’re originary thinkers, we’re ready to go all the way back. But we’re also ready to occupy the present. Leftists can interrupt a public lecture with chants of “We believe Dr. Ford,” but we can flesh out the authority they must imagine that will make that belief mandatory. How do they imagine such an authority put in place, defended, expanded? We must know such things if we are to take such a belief as imperative. (Whom else are we obliged to believe? About what? What is the orthodoxy?) The Ford-faithful would place us in the midst of an event of origin, the unveiling of a sacred name. In that case, every element of the Ford-event must refer to every other element, in a hierarchy flowing from the numinous name itself. “Blasey Ford” must evoke and re-christen the whole series of names from which it derives its own authority. Anything less would be a crude instrumentalization of the divine. If the Ford-faithful are hesitant to spell all this out, we originary thinkers are glad to help out because we really believe that this is how a social order should be articulated—and if the event turns out other than anticipated, well, who is to be blamed for that?


The Senate hall in which Ford testified, the senate or secret service police who protected her, the laws she and her allies sought to invoke, all have origins that make them a poor fit for the Ford origin event. Post-liberals might also have objections to the republican traditions embodied in these institutions, but those republican traditions themselves necessarily refer back to more salutary and secure (monarchical and aristocratic) modes of authority and power and we are happy to refer to those, and to preserve whatever remains of them in existing traditions. Even if nothing but seething hatred of those traditions were to remain we would be willing to recover the object of that hatred by reading between the lines. But we can draw an even more precise line: the origin of any community capable of originary inquiry rather than prescribed devotion to figures of origin must be the transcendence of sacrificial logic by the authorities of the community. We are not engaged in exchanges with the sacred names—we don’t perform some action for them so they will help us win the battle or find a husband for my daughter. We give ourselves over to the preservation and enhancement of our models without hope of return. This repudiation of sacrificial thinking must have had an origin, and every event in a post-sacrificial order iterates that origin. Even reversions to sacrificial logics iterate that origin insofar as they are recognized, marked and repudiated as such. The work of the sovereign, as onomastician-in-chief, with the help of the disciplines, is to construct an order as completely self-referential as possible by having every post-sacrificial event noted, named, and referred to every other such event with ever greater rigor and thoroughness. It should be impossible to think outside of the idiom of the community—every word, every sentence, would be caught up in the web and woof of the social order’s ongoing commemoration of its emergence from sacrifice. Of course other (post-sacrificial) languages—scientific, diplomatic and others—would cross the boundaries of specific social orders and one could always learn them; and one social order could unite with or subsume another within its own idiom. But there would be no “generic” discourse, as, in fact, is the case right now because every social order does exactly what I have been describing here, only in more or less haphazard and conflicted ways, and always with significant sacrificial admixtures. But the “resources” are always available with which to both reveal the unacknowledged self-referential order of the community and to begin to construct a denser, more explicit and good faith network of self-reference among post-sacrificial practices.

November 24, 2018

Gans: Unified field Theory 1 & 2

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:40 am


November 20, 2018

Logocentrism, Media, and Originary Satire

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:33 am

Jacques Derrida’s concept of “logocentrism” posits that Western metaphysics presupposes that writing is a representation of speech, and therefore approximates speech in a secondary, dependent way. Speech, in logocentric terms, involves “self-presence”: the speaker is identical to his intentions, which are therefore transparent to the speaker. Derrida deconstructs logocentrism by pointing out that the features attributed to writing by logocentrism, like distance, difference, repetition and mediation (all of which means interpretation, and erring), are in fact constitutive of speech and all sign use as well. We are not identical and transparent to ourselves but are—this seems obvious, once stated—constituted by a world of signs and meanings that we inhabit and deploy without ever coming anywhere near exhausting their implications. We are signs among signs, and signs mean deferral.

David Olson confirms Derrida’s deconstruction of logocentrism (I’m not at all sure how much Olson—or Derrida—would accept that description of his work) by showing, through historical studies, how writing was developed as a representation and supplementation of speech acts within speech situations. Writing has to represent not only what was said, but how it was said and the context within which it was said, all of which would have been available to the listener but is unavailable to the reader. So, to use Olson’s example, if I’m speaking to people, and I want to report the speech of someone else, I would simply repeat what that person said in the way that he said it. So, if what I want to report that another says that the soldiers are on their way, my tone and expressions would vary depending upon whether the original speaker was hopeful, skeptical or certain; and, although Olson doesn’t explicitly say this, according to my own assessment of his reliability (I could repeat what he said in a slightly mocking tone, for example). Writing needs to supplement all these extra-linguistic elements of the speech situation (as we become literate we no doubt become far less overtly mimetic), so I would have to write that the speaker “believed” the soldiers were coming, or “hoped” they were, or “assumed,” or “claimed,” or “insisted” they were. All of these words mark some assessment of what we are to make of the statement in question: not just the meaning of the statement itself, but the meaning of it being stated.

What further happens, according to Olson, is that we turn these verbal markers into nouns, thereby creating new mental entities: “beliefs,” “assumptions,” “suggestions,” “implications” and so on; we then deposit all these entities in a container we call the “mind” and perform all kinds of analyses on them. We assume they are simply there, that the mind contains thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, intuitions and all the rest. All the modern disciplines are founded on constructing relations between such entities. Meanwhile, what then governs the development of writing is the imperative to simulate the speech situation, to place the reader “in front of” something he witnesses along with the writer. This construct is what Olson refers to (drawing on the work of Mark Turner and Francis Noel-Thomas) as “classical prose.” Whenever we talk about whether or not a piece of writing is clear, comprehensive, logical, and accurate, we are invoking the norms of classical prose: we are attesting to having been put before a scene such that we have virtually forgotten that it is a text that we have used to evoke that scene. If we put all this together, we can see how it becomes possible to speak about things like “social structures” and “economic growth” as if they were there before us, and we could see structures strengthening or crumbling, growth slowing and accelerating.

My discussion so far gives off the vague idea that there’s something wrong with all this, which both is and is not the case. It may be that all media must in some way gesture towards their origin in a scene in which the interlocutors are present to each other in the sense of seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices and being able to respond to each other. There is, on such a scene, a center (what people are actually looking at and talking about) while references or pointing to the center circulates among the members. But once we have writing, the situation is asymmetric, with the text “infiltrating” the reader’s (along with many other readers, unknown to one) silent monologue or perhaps installing such a monologue in the first place. The inner monologue of the reader matches the one imputed to the writer, between whom there is the feeling of a kinship. At any rate, this is the case as reading is privatized and separated from its own original contexts within liturgy and collective study and memorization of texts. The more the reader is isolated and marginalized in relation to the center represented by the text, the more the reader feels free and like a creator of a whole world opened up by the text. Insofar as writing is the representation of speech acts, a “scripto-centric” practice of writing would refrain from filling in the “gaps” to complete the imputed speech situation and would, rather, enact the various possible uses and contexts of speech acts (that is, foreground the iterabiity of the sign made visible by writing).

What interests me here is the possibility that the post-literate media share the same duality: on the one hand, in actuality, creating greater distance and enhanced deferral vis a vis an hypothetical “original” speech act, while on the other hand supplementing the representation of the speech act so as to obscure the mediation and leverage the intuitions of the listener or viewer and thereby produce a fantasy of presence. An obvious feature of all media beyond a speech setting is its institutionalization: a lot of work and organization goes into placing a book in the hand of a reader; even more goes into putting the viewer in front of a TV set or movie screen. One demand especially forcefully insisted upon by the artistic avant-garde has always been to make these mediations visible, to demystify them. That anchor on the TV screen telling you what happened today is not speaking personally to you, telling you what she and her colleagues have found out about the world that day by diligently seeking out events you might consider important and interesting, but a frame is carefully constructed so as to make the viewer feel that way and it can be a hard illusion to break, maybe impossible for many. If television found ways to bring onto the screen the vast institutional and technological networks that produce the screen, there would be no illusion—it would be alienating at first, but people would learn the new “grammar” of television. The only way to become a critical “consumer” of both news and entertainment is to “adumbrate” what you watch with the possible decisions, maneuvers, and conflicts and imagine some “they” who wants you to see these things (and not some other things) in this way. To help others along this path, then, would involve disrupting the imagined “speech situation” that “installs” the view in the desired position. Almost all media representations (including social media like Facebook and Twitter), in fact, aim at simulating a personal, “face to face” relationship with what is on the page, or the screen, or the CD, or the airwaves (indeed, there is outrage and disgust or at least bad reviews when this is not done successfully)—by locking the audience into “spontaneous” oralized reactions (like wanting to sing along, feeling like you’re letting the TV family “into your living room,” or arguing with an anchor or columnist— wanting to “shout at the screen”), it becomes very easy to pump the memes of the day into us. What’s insidious is the fabricated intimacy—an insight, by the way, one can find in the dreaded “cultural Marxists” of the Frankfurt School like Adorno and Horkheimer, not to mention Bertolt Brecht. There is something here that probably goes back to the sensationalist popular press of the 19thcentury, looking for sob stories and horror stories that “could happen to anyone” and “bring the nation together.”

There is quite a bit of irony in the fact that the inquiries of the artistic and theoretical avant-gardes of the 20thcentury, originally devised, with a few exceptions, in the hopes of some kind of “anti-capitalist” revolution, are now of interest only to the dissident right. The alt-right is the inheritor of Dada and the Situationist International. It is also amusing to be reminded that Fredric Jameson, in his “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” obsessively poured over by graduate students in the humanities in the early 1990s, complained that “satire” was now irrelevant as a cultural mode: the critical distance and objective standards presupposed by satire had been abolished by the commodification of the world, which (as Baudrillard had been insisting for decades) “flattened out” all representations and realities in a condition of universal equivalence. All that was now possible was a politically impotent “parody.” What had in fact happened, though, was that leftist critiques had been absorbed into and neutralized by the liberal world order—as if they had ever really been outside of that order in the first place. But the irreverent satire on the alt-right (how far back would we have to go to find a satirist equal to the Chateau Heartiste?) is, it seems, not all that easily “absorbed.” If it were, its practitioners would be receiving generous job offers from the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, etc., they’d be drawing hundreds of thousands in grants from the NEA, etc. Instead, they are de-platformed and doxed, while every effort is made, by some of the most powerful institutions tht have ever existed, to destroy their lives and taint anyone who has had even the most tenuous association with them. Maybe satire has some life in it, after all. (One important thing to keep in mind about satire is that it can be dialed up and down, made more or less subtle, depending on exigencies—indeed, sometimes simply repeating, without comment, what another has said, in a carefully constructed context, can be satire enough.)

The alt-right knows its media—it knows how to deploy a twitter feed, the podcast, to spread memes, to create street art—the only thing it hasn’t mastered yet is actual, physical, presence. Such presence will clearly need to be stealth, which is hard to master. These kinds of observations have sent me back, in recent posts, to the originary scene, and Eric Gans’s reflections on the origins of the aesthetic. Gans locates the aesthetic in the oscillation in attention on the part of the participant on the scene between the sign issued by his fellows and the central object drawing everyone in and repelling everyone back. The aesthetic, then, involves the human, not the divine—it is our way of representing to each other the kinds of “poses” struck by other members of the community that guarantee (or fail to) that they are suitable to accompany us to sites of social distribution. In other words, aesthetic representations test out the various ways we can recognize each other as human (which means that for the aesthetic, the human is always a question). Aesthetic representations that transcend or perfect humanity, or purport to, are really representing institutions, not poses, postures and gestures on a scene. How do we look to each other as potential guarantors (and potential violators) of reciprocal presence on a scene marked by mimetic crisis? As both threatening and vulnerable; i.e., grotesque. Exacerbate these conflicting postures, and you get satire, with its figures bombastic and craven, domineering and slavish, perennially pumping up balloons to be punctured. We see such representations, and we can see others and ourselves, and we can laugh at what goes into and is nevertheless deferred in our everyday representations of ourselves and others. But satire also, of course, bites—what satire reveals is who can survive being punctured and go on in common knowledge of our human faults; and who is really the kind of monster satire teaches us to detect and avoid becoming.

Satire that dispenses with logocentrism once and for all would represent the difference between logocentric, “conversational” representations and the vast networks of technology and power (the imperative field) propping them up. The current NPC meme (is it still current?) is a perfect example. The discipline of satire enters the other disciplines and exposes their reliance on global pseudo-markets, frenzied egalitarian crusades, elite vendettas, as well as cheesy narratives, dead metaphors, sickly clichés, underpaid writers, stagehands, and the blithering idiots produced by the contemporary schools of journalism. (Indeed, all these postures and positions must be traced back to the supplementation of imagined speech situations.) “Debate” or “dialogue” with anyone dependent on mainstream funding and approval is obviously pointless. Sure, they’re human, but they’re also puppets, and the strings are increasingly visible. They’re walking collections of talking points. They’re tiny people, and also big, blundering people, and crazed scientific frauds, and yahoos. Satire doesn’t rely on or desire fake experiences of presence, communion, or F2F encounters—it revels in the distances and alienations that make it possible to carve the caricature, defamiliarize the comforting illusion, de-activate the automatized gesture. If it’s written in classical prose (as we may say of Swift’s satires) it is simultaneously a satire on the transparent, reasonable world classical prose presupposes. Post-liberal politics will be at its best when it’s a giant, open, school of satire.

November 13, 2018

Hostages, Proxies, and Moles

Filed under: GA — adam @ 1:40 pm

One extremely important contribution made by the alt-right and neo-reaction has been the enormous enrichment of the vocabulary we have available for studying social actors and actions. Neo-reaction has retrieved the ancient (caste) distinction between soldiers, priests and merchants; the alt-right has put nations and races back on the agenda, and has also contributed a rich conceptualization of socio-sexual hierarchies, the most fully developed I know of being Vox Day’s (Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, Omegas, Sigmas). Both tendencies have brought back “thick” understandings of male-female differences. Liberalism flattens everyone out into “citizens,” which is perhaps a further development of the absolutist monarchs’ flattening of everyone into “subjects.” Of course, liberalism has seen its own efflorescence of group designations: capitalist, worker, middle class, new middle class, salaried vs. wage earners, plus professional classifications and, of course, all the political differentiations. But the liberal designations just “happen”—we notice them as statistical distributions after the fact, and they have nothing to do with decisions made or founding events. No obligations follow from any of them. Even the supposedly freely chosen political identities turn out to be almost completely grounded in some combination of economic, ethnic, gender, regional, familial status. (Tell me your race or ethnicity, whether or not you are married with children, or hope to be at an early age, and I’m already ¾ of the way towards guessing what you “believe” about most “issues” with a pretty high degree of accuracy.)

The socio-sexual hierarchies may present themselves pretty clearly and consistently in high school, where what differentiation there is almost directly elicits varying dominance tendencies among males and conformist tendencies among females, and no one is really responsible for much, but in the adult world such hierarchies are mediated by the professions, or the disciplines. What makes one an alpha on Wall Street will not gain one the same respect in a scientific community, as an author in the world of publishing, or on a neighborhood watch committee. It would be very interesting to do a longitudinal study tracing men’s (in particular) position in dominance hierarchies throughout their lives, and across the various activities they participate in—no doubt there would be quite a bit of continuity, but high school reunions must hold some surprises. So, it seems that the caste-like differentiations, which follow very directly from what one would have to do in assembling a team, must be the foundational ones. The socio-sexual hierarchies, then, would to some extent determine whether one becomes a soldier, priest or merchant, but would then primarily show up within those groupings. Of course, we need not assume that these specific castes themselves are the last word—it’s just that this points in the direction of the needed inquiry. What we are looking for in such group differentiations is resistance to the equalization pushed by turnover at the center. Ultimately, we would want grammatical definitions—that is, one’s “vocation” would be identified through one’s relation to ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives. Most obviously, if one’s greatest aptitude is to obey imperatives, one is a soldier; to issue imperatives, an officer, ultimately a ruler (the alpha among officers). Beyond that it will get more complex.

It is belonging to a team that makes sense of qualitative “identities.” Teams have captains, and most team sports have more central figures, the one who controls the ball or initiates the action. Liberalism can’t do much with such an approach, because a team needs to be very clear about qualifications and roles. Imagine a wide receiver insisting on the “right” to play fullback. But if social orders are teams (really, teams within teams), what’s the game? It’s easy to get tripped up on that question, because it implies the existence of some external, “Archimedean” point from which one could “choose” among different games, different ways of “winning.” But we can always ask the questioner what game he’s playing in asking the question. Or what leverage within some other game he expects from that move. We’re always immersed in games, that is, and all we can do is solicit and elicit new moves within them. The new moves might eventually become new games. Of course, someone will come up to you and say “life is serious!” or “look at what’s happening—this is no game!” To “gamify” such moves is then an important act of deferral: yes, I can see there is real danger, people might get hurt, maybe they’re getting hurt, there’s no time to lose—still, though, the more we place people in clear-cut roles where they can show what they are made of, the more we find the right measures of tacit and explicit cooperation; in other words, the more team-like we are, the better we’ll handle the emergency. (And then the alphas, betas, gammas, etc., will step up, or step down, or step off in their own ways.)

But there’s still something missing in all this. What happens once the team is exposed to disruptions? This must happen even if only for internal reasons, such as the team’s own successes, and the new problems they generate, and the team’s need to replenish and reproduce itself. At each point along the way, there might be reasons to question decisions made by the captain, decisions with no clear precedent. Exacerbating such potential pitfalls is the reliance of one team upon many other teams. A government is essentially a team mediating between other teams. Sometimes a government is like a referee; sometimes it is more like the major leagues recruiting from the minors; sometimes it has to lead a team of teams against some insubordinate team. Insofar as it is like a referee, which is the case insofar as it runs a justice system, any lapses will be a signal to the players to enter the government team and tip the scale in their favor. So, now we have antagonisms between teams, and members of one team infiltrating other teams. Teams will aggregate into mega-teams. This creates more possible resentments that could be leveraged within one team on behalf of another.

In the midst of the many stresses placed on a team, the coherence of the team will depend upon how highly it values its members. I mean “value” in a very literal sense: what will the team spend or risk to protect a particular member? We could think of a spectrum of possibilities here, where at one end is a team in which all the members are interchangeable and easily replaced; at the other end, not only is each player highly specialized and impossible to replace, but the set of relations built among team members could not be restored if one of the members is removed. In any complex society, there will be more of the former type than the latter, but the kind of complex society you have will be determined by which type of team sets the tone. A centered social order will depend on irreplaceables, and will want more of them; a decentered order, or one with a rapid turnover at the center, will want more interchangeables. Liberalism is essentially a process of pulverizing irreplaceables into interchangeables. In fact, that’s how you get all those new “statistical” identities in the first place.

Irreplaceables are high value targets. That is, they are very useful as hostages. The centrality of hostage taking in honor societies cannot be overestimated. Hostages are involved in the most mundane practices. Diplomatic intercourse in ancient kingdoms required an exchange of high value hostages. In honor societies, hostages are highly priced because they signify the value of the patriarch—if a hostage is not returned, the capability of the captain to protect his team is compromised, and seen to be compromised. This means everyone is ultimately a hostage, or just waiting to be one. The reason why a patriarch will feel compelled to kill a dishonored daughter is because her dishonor—even if she was raped, which only means she was allowed to be in an unprotected position where that was possible—shames him as protector. She was a hostage, even if this didn’t become explicit until she was dishonored. Post-honor teams consider their members irreplaceable because the team performs some essential function, but no team, and certainly no team of teams, i.e., no government, can ever be once and for all post-honor (and irreplaceability in functional terms is always relative and diminishing). Why is it an issue when a single American is held hostage by some terrorist group, when 50,000 people, or however many, are killed in automobile accidents every year, etc.? Because the investment in redeeming the hostage is a marker of the coherence of the team.

So, “hostage” is an “identity” that must be added to or supplement soldier, priest, merchant, and alpha, beta, and so on. We are all hostages in potentia, to all of the different teams we are members of. The flip side of being a hostage is that you, as an individual, can shame the group through your actions, which is a way of offering yourself up as a hostage to other teams. The captain is then faced with the choice of redeeming you as a hostage (“he is one of ours, after all, you’ll have to come and take him”) or expelling him (letting the other team do with him what they will). The first approach, all things being equal, implies a hostile relation to other teams, while the second approach implies a willingness to police within your own borders in the interest of mutual amity. Hostage taking is central to political warfare today. Each side attacks someone on the other side for doing or saying something that can be framed as shameful, presumably for some audience not directly implicated in either team (or, an audience made up of members of the team insofar as they are also members of other teams). You then dare the other team to protect the hostage or cut him loose. Protecting him means you put more members out on a limb, and they may be taken hostage; but cutting him loose may encourage more hostage taking as well.

It seems to me that hostage taking is closely related to the use of “proxies,” which is such a crucial concept in Moldbuggian neo-absolutism. The high uses the low as proxies against the middle. Let’s see if the concept of hostage taking can enrich our understanding of the process. To activate a proxy, you need a group, or a team. In order to turn the team into a proxy, you need to interfere with its exchange system—and exchange systems within groups work primarily on the gift and honor model. Members of that team get humiliated by members of another team. This lowers their value on the team—if they are humiliated enough, it’s not worth it trying to redeem them. The way to leverage the team as a proxy is to elevate the value of the humiliated members, to redeem them as hostages by making their humiliation shameful, not for the team to whch they belong, but for the team from which the humiliators come. This can only be done by the “highs,” i.e., an external and more powerful group which has, for example, the means of publicizing instances of humiliation and framing them as shameful, pressuring the team to repudiate them, that is, refuse to pay ransom in added scrutiny of the team. It even becomes possible to induce members of the targeted “middle” group to offer themselves as hostages, by allowing their value to be determined by the team from which the humiliated come, which really means determined by those with the spotlight to shine on (or turn away from) all of these doings. The humiliated ones then acquire the highest value, which they can leverage within their team and on behalf of their team. Within this economy, the interchangeables become irreplaceables.

Much of this is clearly outside of the control of any individual, but the best way to lessen one’s chance of being reduced to the option of becoming a low value hostage or puppetized proxy is to become a mole. A mole on behalf of the center. Every discipline employs a kind of cover; even its normal members are under cover, which is to say playing a role, wearing a costume, etc. Deferral is itself mole-like—you set aside your desires and resentments, which means you act as someone who has redeemed oneself from proclivities that make it easy to take you hostage (and would also make you a dispensable hostage). You make yourself a higher value hostage by hiding your value in making yourself irreplaceable to those who would protect you but interchangeable for those who would take you. As a mole for the center, you find signs of irreplaceability behind signs of interchangeability.

The most obvious example of “molarity” is leftist entryism, whereby a traditional institution is infiltrated and transformed into a progressive front. This describes pretty much every institution in the contemporary world. This kind of entryism involves leveraging the institution’s rules against itself. The institution has rules that implement some higher, meta-rules (academic freedom in the name of the search for truth); but the rules exclude (that’s not really “academic” work), so the meta-rules can be invoked to subvert the rules (your definition of “academic” excludes new, path-breaking inquiry). In enough cases the charge will be plausible enough, and sometimes even true, so as to confer the benefit of the doubt on new attacks. In the end, “academic” is given a new meaning. In hostage-taking terms, what happens here, at least in the initial stages, is that the activist/entrepreneur takes some member of the team hostage, while simultaneously offering herself up as a hostage. The team member (who has been “critiqued”) can be demoted in some way, while the entrant can be expelled. It’s a long game, a trial and error process—over time, if the game is played right, enough prominent team members get demoted and enough entryists are redeemed. At a certain point the entryists are in, and can dispense with the pretense of playing by the old rules, at least for internal transactions—for external messaging, it might be necessary to keep up the pretense indefinitely.

Centerist molarity replaces the meta-rules with infra-rules. Never, ever, conduct battles on the terrain of the meta-rules, however tempting it may be to defend the cause of truth, justice, freedom, beauty, God, the good. These are all central words, so the point is not that they should or could be forgotten or expunged—they just can’t be the object of a direct contest. Molarity on behalf of the center constructs practices that externalize the practices of the team you join. You show them what they’re actually doing in a way they may not exactly appreciate, but that at least some will find revelatory and compelling. You offer them ways of being more competent by showing how their reliance on some skewed version of a meta-rule interferes with some practice they’re trying to construct. This is actually a way of deferring hostage taking—you try and make everyone more irreplaceable, and you try to make the team itself more irreplaceable for as many other teams as possible. You work on producing interchangeable means of making more irreplaceables. Of course, this ends up making us all emissaries, which is to say self-delivered hostages of each other.

November 6, 2018

Crowding Out the Political

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:19 am

The best way to replace the liberal order would be one modeled on the paradox of identity. We all know this one: you have, e.g., a ship, and you replace one plank, and then another breaks so you replace that one. And so on. At what point is it no longer the “same” ship? Of course, this paradox is meant to examine our assumptions regarding “identity.” So, it’s still the same ship insofar as it’s still called the S.S. Minnow. Is it more the same ship if the material used to replace it part by part is closer to the original (the same kind of wood, or wood from the same stock)? (What if the ship looks so different that people refuse to call it the Minnow, or laugh when the owner does so?) If it ceases to be the same, at what point does this happen? The 378thplank? The 517th? Why, exactly? Such boundary questions occur across the board—when does a hill become a mountain (the “heap paradox”)? We have to name or nominate things but the things are not obliged to conform to our labels. Such paradoxes can become sterile academic exercises, but they can become very interesting when how to call a thing implicates interests and elicits conflicts.

So, when would a liberal order no longer be a liberal order? The ideal would be for the question not to be asked too widely until the answer was already “now.” After all, the assumption that all political intentions be widely telegraphed and explicitly stated is itself a liberal one that liberalism itself never abides by. No one is under any obligation to openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their aims, their views, their tendencies, and meet the fairy tale of authoritarianism with a manifesto of the party itself. It may be better to replace one plank at a time, and at the same time stockpile nicely prepared wood and devise some better names for various institutions, offices and practices, names perhaps to be used informally, satirically at first (memed into existence) but eventually to be “baptized” once the existing names are laughed out of existence. Where there is now liberal, let there be authority. If we itemize all the various elements of the existing order that are specifically liberal, approach them analytically, that is, break them down into their elements, we can identify where leverage lies. For example, does it make more sense to try and eliminate elections, or to render their results as irrelevant as possible (in which case they may continue but become vestigial)? How relevant are their results now? What gets decided byelections? What gets decided throughthe electoral process? What does the electoral process allow to be decided behind the scenes? How does the electoral process nevertheless shape what is behind the scenes so as to advantage some power centers over others? The point is to determine how the democratic system undermines authority, chains of command, competence, discipline and tradition, and to interfere with that process, to make it a less promising (more compromised) vehicle for those who benefit from, empower themselves through, higher levels of anarchy and chaos. The proper institutional “fix” will follow, more as a coup de grace than an apocalyptic triumph.

In other words, we crowd out the political. By “political,” I mean the assumption that nothing can be done without stimulating opposition. If someone wants to do something X way, we can’t proceed until we’ve heard from someone who wants to do it Y way. If no one actually wants to argue for Y, we must conjure it into existence. If you’re thinking politically, you see, e.g., a Congressional district where the incumbent regularly gathers 80% of the vote and stays in office for 40 years, and you think, not “these people must agree on most important things, must be happy with those who represent them, must get along quite well, and probably don’t think politics should consume their lives”; no, you think “this is awful, authoritarian, totalitarian, conformist—these people are not genuinely being represented because a false consensus is being imposed upon them.” So, the goal is to turn the 80/20 district into a 51/49 one. How do you do that? Find small disagreements, about things people don’t consider that important, and turn them into big disagreements about issues of existential survival. Political entrepreneurs will ply the margins and figure out exactly where is the particular arrangement of antagonisms that will get them to 51%. This is pretty much all that politics is comprised of, which is why so much of it is patently fake, especially the part about politicians promising to set aside the politics and cross over the aisle to get things done. Even worse, the process covers for and enables the very institutional dysfunctions that produce it—there’s nothing that can’t be politicized, which benefits those who are best at deploying their current market share and access to political leverage to further pulverize power and gather up its bits.

The 80/20 to 51/49 example is useful because it helps us to see exactly what kinds of attitudes, ideas and behaviors we would have to crowd out to marginalize and eventually eliminate the political. I think that some of my recent discussions of morality, ethics and aesthetics will help us in theorizing or modeling practices that identify, counter and disable those attitudes, ideas and behaviors. Ethics involves the maintenance of some discipline or practice asthatdiscipline or practice—what makes “medicine” medicine, what makes “chess” chess, what makes “governing” governing? There’s an ethics of conversation—what makes this conversation the conversation that it is, and what is involved in sustaining it? The way we speak about ethical questions is in terms of the difference or oscillation between the meaning of an act for the actor and its meaning for fellow participants and/or spectators and/or “clients.” If I’m teaching a class, would other teachers recognize what I’m doing as “teaching a class” or does it seem to them something else, like, say, therapy, activism, or performance? What about the students, and then those assessing students (say in other classes for which mine was a prerequisite)? Genuine teaching should produce genuine students who recognize it as such, and assessment practices should be generated by the effect or impact aimed by a genuine pedagogy, but, of course, all these elements of the practice can be out of alignment with each other, and various “inputs” (unprepared students, market-derived assessment criteria, etc.) can make them even more misaligned. In that case, “ethics” concerns realigning these elements of the practice or discipline, and that entails retrieving its origin, as a practice created in the midst of other practices so as to elicit and produce certain capacities that couldn’t be acquired otherwise.

If ethics is centered upon some good to be obtained, morality defers another kind of centering—the violent centering involved in sacrificial practices. A sacrifice is an attempt to influence a deity by offering some exchange; we don’t think we engage in such practices anymore, but we do. Some sacrificial practices seem innocuous enough, maybe even elevating—promising God, for example, that if he gets you out of this jam, that you’ll treat your kids better, or stop drinking, or whatever (something God presumably wants you to do)—as long as you keep the promise, of course. But if you think such exchanges can make things good with God, you will see your practices as accumulating such objects of potential exchange. Everything and everyone is a potential object of exchange. When there is a crisis, which is to say when “everything” seems to be at stake, your inclination will be to seek out the most valuable object of exchange, so as to ensure the crisis is relieved. Along with your fellow sacrificial participants you will choose whomever seems most misaligned with the system as the most likely cause of the crisis and therefore the most suitable sacrifice, and you will project onto that sacrificial victim the actions and motivations needed to justify his expulsion.

So, morality involves first of all refusing and resisting such practices. The more moral one is, the more moral some community is, the more it identifies markers and tendencies towards sacrificial practices, and replaces those tendencies with other practices aimed at determining which intentional practices lead to which results and which habits lead to which intentional practices. The causes of the crisis are therefore located within the community, within its mimetic desires and rivalries, and institutions and norms are established so as to discover those rivalries as early and defer them as quickly and decisively as possible. These institutions are therefore the ones in which ethics becomes the central question—this is the case even for seemingly amoral practices, like those of science and medicine. Once we realize that some form of defilement or ritual transgression is not the cause of the disease, we are free to inquire into what the causes actually are. Once we stop looking for the ways God has marked out evil doers through some kind of disability or abnormality, we can take responsibility for determining what counts as evildoing and constructing procedures for proving and punishing it. And as we get better at tracing webs of human intention and causality, the we can respond to misfortunes suffered as a result of no action of the victim with kindness rather than horror. At the same time, it is in ethical breakdowns that moral questions become immediate and urgent: when we know longer know what counts as “law,” “justice,” “health,” “knowledge,” and so on, we find ourselves in unresolvable conflicts that lead us to lapse into sacrificial practices. It is here that politics finds its point of entry and, really, its entire reason for being. Working towards the proper articulation of ethics and morality gives politics less and less to do. To put it another way, the political entrepreneur tries to turn every moral and ethical question into a political one, that is, one to be “solved” by generating a whirlpool of conflict around it (the permanent conflict is, in fact, the solution for the political actor); a counter-politics works on reversing this and distilling all political conflicts back into moral and ethical questions, in the event of which the specifically political component will vanish, and so, often, will the “problem” itself.

We do need the “imagination,” or aesthetics, for such practices. Aesthetics, for Gans, is the oscillation, on the originary scene, between the sign and the object: the form of the sign directs the scenic participant’s attention to the transfigured central object; the object, re-appearing as the object of desire, and therefore desacralized, sends the participant’s attention back to the “well-formed” sign. In this way we come to expect formal “frames” for attending to, using and consuming objects. It seems to me we need to see this momentary oscillation as a scene within the scene, or event within the event: a potential and imagined event in which a “figure” appears as both vulnerable and threatening, both complete in itself and “omni-referential.” It is through aesthetic representations—not necessarily “art”—that we can see preliminary lapse in ethics within normal and apparently ethical practices, or the immoral intentions, ends, or even implications in the most upright practices. So, I have proposed thinking about the aesthetic as a kind of “originary satire.” Think about how someone looks when we see him simultaneously at his most vulnerable and most threatening—the image is inevitably grotesque. I’ve stumbled here upon the thesis that, aesthetically speaking, the grotesque precedes the beautiful and the sublime. I would defend that by saying that the grotesque gives us the human on the scene as the sign, while the beautiful and the sublime transfer the aesthetic representation to the center and invest it with divinity, which is to say desirability, internal symmetry and unapproachability. The beautiful and sublime are, of course, immensely valuable human acquisitions, but if we want to see when and where we are at our worst in thinking we’re at our best, or where our desires and resentments are cloaked in the most beautiful and sublime forms, we need originary satire. I’ll conclude with the grandiose and perhaps grotesque claim that only originary satire can hold the entire moral and ethical order together. Not to mention that it best stymies all political rhetoric—all divisive claims cloaked in the treacly preaching of edifying unification around principles defined and controlled by the rhetorician himself—and therefore most aggressively crowds out the political.

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