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.

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