GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 5, 2019

Form and Paradox

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:14 am

Once the sign has done its work on the originary scene, that of arresting the forward, convergent movement of the emergent community toward the central object, the members of the group will, indeed, proceed to advance on the object and consume it together. This raises the question of how they do so without forgetting what they just learned, and restarting the mimetic crisis. The sparagmos, the manifestation of the resentment toward the center, must be contained. My answer to this question, one I have put forward many times, is that the sign is “flashed” at each point along the way, accruing meaning and variation along the way. Even at the “wildest” moment of the sparagmos, a quick gesture would prevent one member of the group from encroaching “too much” on the portion of another member. What this means is that form is needed to make transitions from one activity to another, or from one “stage” of an activity to another.

This is the reason for that “canopy of ceremony” enveloping all practices in traditional orders, the loss of which in modernity is so bitterly mourned by reactionary cultural theorists. Think, for example, of how difficult it can be to “disengage” from an intense conversation with a close friend. It’s awkward to say something like “ok, see ya” when that cut-off point inevitably comes. The good-bye is best framed in such a way as to indicate some carrying over of that experience into more mundane activities, as well as that the separation represents a mere interregnum, as the conversation will be resumed at some later point. Or, take perhaps the most “wild” activity of most modern humans, sexual intercourse—just as some process of seduction must proceed the act, some exchange of words and gestures must “seal” its conclusion, both to preserve it as sacralized memory and integrate it into the rest of life. A lot of “bad” sexual experiences are no doubt a result of a failure on the part of one or both parties to see to the “scenic” character of the act. (The new legal doctrine of “affirmative consent” is a kind of unintentional parody of this need for form, trying to codify in declaratives what must in large part take place on the ostensive and imperative level.)

I’m coming back to this question in connection with arguments regarding the moral order of absolutism I’ve been making recently. The problem for absolutist political thought is conceiving of a post-sacrificial center. We can’t have a God-Emperor because we know that the emperor doesn’t control the weather, the river or the crops, nor can we in good faith bring some portion of our possessions to a temple to be consumed so as to ensure the regularity of rainfall or, more generally, the benevolent gaze of the deities. But, since there is a center, over and beyond any “justifications” for it, or for a particular occupant of the center, that anyone could provide, the center’s de-sacralization leaves a hole. Since what the center does is issue imperatives, in obeying the imperatives from the center we confer the “graceful charisma” (a term from Philip Rieff recently referenced by Imperius in his twitter feed) the center needs—more precisely, we do so in the way we obey, by eliminating the gap between the imperative issued and the imperative obeyed. “Social science” becomes a holy science insofar as it is wholly engaged in studying the difference between imperatives issued and imperatives obeyed, including the ways that difference is manifested through the declarative order.

A particular “fork” confronts us in embarking upon the path any imperative places before us. Since the center is occupied by, has been “usurped” by, a human, every human comes to model him or herself on that occupant by demanding some form of centrality him/herself. Being the recipient of an imperative places you at a center with, therefore, some power to wield—at the very least the power to direct attention one way or another. One way of directing attention is by appropriating the “transgressive charisma” (to return to the distinction Imperius evokes) one gains by violently centralizing someone “falsely” claiming centrality. This putative falseness consists, circularly, in marginalizing the present claimant’s, and all those he invites to be represented by him, self-centralizing. We can identify transgressive charisma because its bearer will accuse his target of all of the violations of normative order that he himself commits in his very accusation.

And this normative order is the result of the deferral of scapegoating that marks post-sacrificial order. Something goes wrong—our first impulse is to find the origin of the threat and eliminate it. (We are all originary thinkers.) How? We first of all look for a human origin because anything that threatens us seems intentionally directed at us, and only a human could threaten us intentionally. (Gods, in sacrificial orders, can be considered humans for this purpose—the border line is very porous.) So, which human? Some of us stand out more than others, whether it is because we are “defective” in some way (physically disabled, speaking with a lisp, etc.) or because we have come, rightly or wrongly, to be associated with “trouble.” Some of us are “marked,” in other words. Someone, in a given situation, will be “especially” marked. How so? Someone will make some apparently plausible connection between that individual and the event. Someone else will second it. Others start to look more closely, and find other reasons for suspicion. And not just suspicion of a past deed, but of ongoing connivance in whatever the threat is. Everyone starts to converge upon this individual. It is not just that he needs to be punished, but that he is the source of a contagion that can only be stopped by shutting it down at its source, and right now. The proof of this is the very contagion that leads to the convergence on the individual. The panic intensifies until that individual is eliminated.

That is scapegoating, and we see this kind of thing happen, usually, of course, in much less disastrous forms, all the time. Look at why people get excluded from groups, ostracized by or within institutions. Now, if we put the scenario I described in the previous paragraph in reverse, let’s say that as the crowd starts to converge, one individual hesitates, and starts questioning the movement toward this central object. He points out that the association someone has made could easily have another explanation, or may not even be an association. He proposes that we look more closely at that purported “evidence.” He might further point out that harming this one person will do nothing—whatever the emergency is (if it is in fact an emergency—another question he might raise), it has to be addressed on its own terms. He may point out that some of the participants are clearly hurling accusations only because others are—indeed, they’re the same accusations, and the people hurling them give no evidence of having thought of them on their own.

All this scenic construction is what lies at the base of a “normative order” or “justice system.” The entire legal system can be seen as erected so as to cut off at the pass all the mimetic inclinations toward scapegoating. But the person who slows down the crowd redirects its hostility toward himself. He may become a victim, but he has advantages that the chosen victim doesn’t. The selected victim, the “emissary,” is marked, and every response he has given towards the crowd has stained him further—his denials are obviously lies, his tone and gestures show that he is keeping some secret, etc. The retardant, meanwhile, is no more marked than anyone else, and attempts to mark him now will be risky because too obviously “interested.” He begins by drawing attention to the crowd, which must now look at itself—or, at least some are looking at others, diluting its “crowdness.” To the extent that he is an effective retardant, everything he says confronts some claim, some accusation, made by the leader of the crowd (the self-chosen leader, or perhaps one chosen by the retardant himself, to give the crowd focus and slow it down). Why did he notice this, but neglected to tell you that? The retardant doesn’t want to renew the crowd’s fervor, this time directed at its (former) leader—he wants to dissolve the crowd, while ensuring that it retains a memory of what it would most like to forget. It may be important to punish the leader, but it should be a slow and proportionate punishment, in contrast to the hurried and massively disproportionate one the crowd was about to inflict. Most basically, the punishment should be a lowering of the trust given to that individual, which is really just a recognition that he has revealed something that we can’t forget. At the same time, there will now be something in each of us that we trust a bit less, and we will all be a little bit more ready to listen to someone taking on the role of the retardant in similar cases.

You have a post-sacrificial culture once the balance has shifted from the arsonists to the retardants so that, ultimately, most of us are mostly retardants, and can note our own inflammatory tendencies. But once this takes place there comes the tendency to farm out our retardant capacities to automatized institutions that run according to fixed rules and bureaucrats who can apply those rules without thinking too much about their origins or meaning. Sacrificial tendencies will then recur; indeed, the justice institutions themselves will attract such tendencies, where they can be indulged covertly and in good conscience. (Liberalism is essentially the laundering of scapegoating through the justice institutions.) We will never have to stop learning to be the first retardants. This is what we learn by giving form to all of our interactions and thereby ensuring continuity and consistency of intent—passing the baton, so to speak, even to ourselves. When scenes are formally constructed, emergencies are already accounted for in terms of the scene itself—there are “procedures” in place, even if only tacitly, in the forms given to actions and interactions. It is accusations of intent that can’t be seen in the form of one’s actions that will stand out, not markings of being less fit.

This requires an acknowledgment of the paradoxical structure of the sign I’ve been exploring in the last couple of posts. Again: we create the “reality” that we also simply “refer” to. Even knowing this doesn’t extricate us from the paradox because any attempt to act on this knowledge just generates a new scene, with an uncertain outcome, on which new signs with the same paradoxical structure will be emitted. We work, live think and speak with this paradox by remaking ourselves, as much as possible, into forms that sustain continuity across acts. I might be marked; any of us might be, under certain conditions. But one can show that the very things that might mark one are in fact signs of one’s retardant quality. What seems irritating, annoying, or threatening is really my giving notice of a readiness to hesitate before any prospective convergence. I would then need to remake myself so that that is genuinely the case, so that I don’t delude myself into thinking that simply being irritating and annoying in itself marks one as a retardant. One thereby constructs the reality within which one will circulate as a sign of deferral, but it will only be such a reality insofar as one actually defers, which also depends upon all the others—all the others with whom one is then engaged in a reciprocal process of creating an idiom of forms constituting an oscillation between hesitancy and continuity.

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