Crowding Out the Political

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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