GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 29, 2019

How Does the Center speak?

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:25 am

All human existence is an exchange with the center. The first message from the center is to defer appropriation, a message “heard” by all participants on the scene. Once deferral has been effected, the means of the deferral (the sign) can be deployed in new circumstances, to defer new conflicts. The originary center is still the ultimate reference point: we can defer violence in this new situation because we remember (memory is embedded in the sign of) the originary scene. The original “message” is therefore somewhat dimmed, but also different, because more specific, tailored to serve this new act of deferral. Many billions of scenes later, the number of scenes a particular act of deferral must be imagined to ping off makes the origin and retrieval correspondingly more distant and more complex. The center is always saying “defer appropriation,” but appropriation of what, in the face of what potential violence, constructing what frame enabling eventual appropriation—in those details we can find lots of devils.

The answers to these questions can’t be self-evident, but we can’t exactly “argue” about them either. On what grounds could one say that we must do X because that follows from the originary scene and all its subsequent permutations? What would count as a “logical” case, or relevant “facts”? We would be better off trying to understand why people have believed shamans and prophets when they claimed to speak God’s word (and why we, even today, could say that sometimes they really were doing something like that, and sometimes less so). Thinking in terms of paradigm shifts in the sciences would also be more helpful, because that would enable us to keep in mind that what is important is not a point-by-point refutation, but a very close look at the most anomalous of the anomalies. I wouldn’t say that deciding things by the force of the better argument is fraudulent, just that for decisions to genuinely be made that way requires an enormous amount of good faith and prior agreement on all sides. If we agree on 99% of things, we could argue productively over the last 1%.

As always, I want to emphasize that I am not presenting locating and articulating an imperative from the center that we could trace back to the originary scene as one way of making decisions as opposed to others—rather, this is what we do anyway, so we should get clearer about it. If you accept that someone has made a compelling enough argument or disseminated a powerful enough meme that you should change your mind, you have conferred authority upon a particular tradition of determining what counts as “compelling,” “powerful,” or “convincing,” and that tradition is a transformation of some previous tradition, which articulated assumptions (virtual ostensives) regarding the relation between authority and reference, and so on, all the way back to the beginning. You are always conferring and responding to authority, which doesn’t mean you always just do or believe what someone more powerful tells you to; rather, it means that have sought out or been provided by someone else who sought out, the authority that has been maintained because it has “packaged” ostensives and imperatives together in such a way as to maintain the continuity of the center.

The center speaks through everyone and it speaks by maximum paradoxicality. In a sense it would be truer to say that humans construct the center “in their own image,” but saying that would lead instantly to the imperative to decide, together, how we want to construct the center, and that question would contain in itself a complete falsification. We can’t disenchant ourselves in that way—“man,” pure and simple, doesn’t exist, and certainly not as the collective maker of the center. We might, like Descartes, believe we can cleanse ourselves of all prior beliefs, but we certainly can’t cleanse ourselves of the language in which we do the cleansing—we can’t stop believing in language, which always refers us back to the center. We can’t think ourselves out of this fundamental paradox, that we create the language by which we are created—we must think with the paradox. It may be best to say we speak along with the center. We try to make explicit a paradox that everyone is involved in implicitly.

The problem is how to inhabit the most anomalous anomaly—that is where the deferral capacities of the center you help surround are most strained, and new methods are called for. If a group has been able to avoid conflict by dividing up land a particular way, then if the group conquers new land, or some members of the group bring new land into cultivation, that agreement must now be “applied” to the new conditions. This will involve some revision, and some abstraction from the previously successful agreement. But it will generate new conflicts as well: something that made the previous agreement seem “just” will not be repeated here. Someone who was included last time will be excluded here. The judgements of the central authority will seem less grounded, more tenuous; secondary authorities might feel a need to “supplement” him. The decisions made will be increasingly anomalous—that is, they will not fit into the system that has been constructed. If the group is not to unravel, someone will have to propose a new agreement, and they will have to do so in the right way—a way that acknowledges the central authority’s power as judge. It will be necessary to be both more abstract (extracting from the original agreement something that can be applied in a new way here) and more concrete (contributing to a specific, consequential, decision). Some kind of “leap” is necessary—that’s what “prophecy,” as well as “intuition” and “genius” is about. It will most likely involve the invention of a new social or legal category, one that will be shown to have been “always already” applicable.

But I don’t want to use words like “prophecy,” “intuition” and “genius” because that space of thinking and decision is what needs to be theorized in terms of hearing the center. if I find myself in the space between some imperative and its fulfillment, then I fill that space by oscillating between some possible implementation of the instruction and some necessary limitation in its utterance. I thereby make myself, as much as I can, within that situation, an extension of the will or intention behind the command. The more I separate myself from the command the more I give myself over to it. Everyone else is doing the same thing, or something different, even the opposite—shirking, defecting or sabotaging. The center speaks through them as well. Maybe they think you’re the saboteur. At this point, the center needs to speak in declaratives. Articulate maximum agreement with maximum disagreement. Maximum agreement: there is a center, and we all respond to it, otherwise how do words and sentences mean and how do we know what they mean—at the very least, your enemy assumes you can understand the epithets he hurls at you. If there’s a center—even if someone wants to call it “principles,” or “maxims of action,” or better habits—something toward which one orients oneself, then it’s impossible to turn away from that center, and all you could accomplish in trying to do so is show its wealth through your own poverty. We then need not fear maximum disagreement, even among friends and allies: there is always some virtual ostensive we see, some mediated command we obey, differently.

The same paradoxicality applies from act to act, carried out by the same actor—in trying to obey the command of the center as that command is embedded in its precedents and through the dispossession it requires, my just previous attempt completely failed, and is thoroughly marked by shirking, defecting and sabotage; but that shirking, defecting and sabotage can only be seen because it all clarifies the command one failed to obey, and in my ongoing obedience I will target the inclinations and distractions that issued in the failure. Of course, if someone else accuses me of defection, I will have to agree completely while asking for the imperatives the center his own obedience to which enables him to identify me as an anomaly issues. And what center is that center on the periphery of? He follows the imperative to seek the truth, or maybe to advance equality; he then follows some tradition of sorting out truth from falsehood, of exposing “artificial” inequality as it obscures “natural” equality. But is there not something anomalous in taking the leading role in fighting inequality—surely, to fight it even more effectively, there are all kinds of “privileges” you would have to claim. Now we might be able to reach agreement on how to study the kinds of privileges that might be necessary to advance anything. What falsehoods does he have to leave unexposed to isolate the little truth upon which he has decided to expend his current energies; maybe we could agree on some terms of study regarding the said and unsaid, the explicit and the tacit. The center speaks as we find failures in successes, new problems in solutions, and then answers to old questions in those failures and problems.

The purest paradoxes may be the paradoxes of self-reference, that is, sentences that refer back to themselves in a way that makes them simultaneously true and false. The one I prefer to use is the liar’s paradox, originally the Cretan liar’s paradox because, even though it has been subsequently tightened by logicians in order to make it airtight, in its original form it sounds very much like something we can imagine someone saying, for very intelligible reasons—that is, it doesn’t come across as an artificial construct. “Cretans are all liars,” said by a Cretan, can very readily be understood, for example, as a Cretan ratting out his fellow Cretans in order to curry favor with whoever, for the moment, is in charge of the Cretans—don’t trust them; rather, trust me, because I know them so well. And, indeed, who could know that Cretans are all liars better than another Cretan? Of course, it could also be a decent Cretan in despair, expressing his hopelessness of the state of Crete, and accepting his own implication in its degradation. Or a Cretan trying to wake up his fellow Cretans—don’t you see you’re all drowning in your lies—I can tell you this because I’m poisoned by them as well. There’s always something paradoxical in an individual speaking for a group, because any such speaking for is an attempt to change the group in some way by posing as a mere description. But there’s no way a group could speak, or an outsider could speak about a group without hearing members of the group speak of it. But any listener must suspect the speaker of describing his group either to cover himself with its luster or distinguish himself favorably from it. But the same is true when one just speaks of oneself.

But if we know this, we can present ourselves, as individuals or members of groups, as paradoxes. What makes you a member of a group is that any time someone addresses you they do so on both levels: as an individual and a member, a center and a fluctuating probability. I don’t mean in some specific social category; I mean as the type of person capable of being addressed in a particular way—capable of answering a certain question, obeying a specific imperative, adding to a particular discourse. To have the center speak through you is to enact a self-referential paradox of accepting your membership in the linguistically constructed group by attributing, implicitly or explicitly, qualities to that group at odds with what you actually say. To take a simple example, let’s say someone concludes a discourse directed towards you with an aggressive “so what do you think about that!?,” thereby constructing you as a member of some hypothetical group that would be offended, or stymied, or angered by what has just been said. If your response is in the vein of “well, here’s what Ithink about that,” i.e., one accepting of the challenge, while in fact derailing, or parodying, or neutralizing the prospective confrontation by distinguishing one’s “I-ness,” then you have enacted the self-referential paradox: yes, I’m a _______, and (as you say) ________’s always _________ (even while maybe I don’t quite…). The words, your gesturing, your posture, and/or you use of a particular media, all fitted to the scene, will be the center speaking, saying “transform this into a deferring rather than “horde-ing” center.”

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