GABlog

March 5, 2019

Identities

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:20 am

We are all products of the center; we all want to participate in the center. Any discussion of who any “I” or “we” had better take that as its starting point. Any individual life can be traced from center to center: the parent(s) at the center of the family, the teacher at the center of the classroom, the principal at the center of the school, the cool kid at the center of the peer group, the boss at the center of the workplace, and many more. These are the centers from which imperatives are issued, and which impose a nomos on the scene: the “fair” or “just” division of goods, attention, sympathy, protection amongst siblings, classmates, co-workers. In the modern world, there are centers backing these with which we are in direct contact: corporations, media, the state. These larger centers support the local ones, or encourage us to resist them, or some complicated combination of both that individuals need to figure out. The local centers, meanwhile, may support or subvert each other—the cool kid implicitly or explicitly encourages us to defy our parents and teachers. And, of course, the power of the cool kid might be enforced by entertainment media while the authority of parents might be reinforced by the state. Whatever goes into making up individuals will be the “processing” of all these articulated centers in tension with each other within a more or less stable and dynamic structure of desires, resentments and imperatives. (I don’t deny the importance of biological and ultimately genetic make-up to the formation of individuals, but I don’t have anything to say about that and any genetic predispositions would still get “processed” through the structures outlined above.)

We will find that all of these local and intermediary centers are supported by the central authority—family, school, workplace, even informal groupings like clubs, leagues and associations are ultimately legitimated by the state. The most informal of these groupings, such as friendships and romances, are not, but are closely supervised by these other structures. One of the most powerful fantasies of the modern world is that of forming an intimate bond with another that is outside of, and transcends, all formal authorities—“us against the world.” But it’s a powerful fantasy because it is produced so often in art and entertainment, and it is part of the long term political process of demolishing intermediary authorities and leaving each individual face to face with the central authority. The production of this fantasy draws heavily upon the Christian iconography foundational to Western culture (and I wonder whether other cultures even have something like this): central to the “us against the world” narrative is the martyrdom of one or both of the couple, who somehow evoke the mimetic resentment of the authorities and those who accept them unquestioningly, and whose actual or social death reveals the violence behind the apparently placid normalcy of everyday life. I wonder if it would be possible to test the hypothesis that to be a fully participating member of Western culture, one must have experienced oneself as the victim within this narrative at some point in one’s life. Perhaps that is what makes one “interpellatable.”

One’s relation to the state could be seen as an articulation of one’s relations to actual, possible, and residual sovereignties. An Irish-American, for example, is first of all subject to the American state, while having more or less distant ancestors who were subject to Irish sovereignty or, more likely, Irish potential sovereignty in more or less open rebellion against British. This residual allegiance might subside into irrelevance and be subsumed into a new mixture of lapsed allegiances; but it might also be leveraged against the American state or other groups (others with analogous more or less phantom allegiances). This play of identities we can also see as ultimately an effect of the degree of unity of the central authority: the more pluralistic the state, that is, the more it invites different elites to levy sections of the population to vie for control over an increasingly centralized state, the more sharply defined and reciprocally antagonistic (with various shifting alliances) these groups will be. But there’s no reason to assume that the absorption of all these residual and possible allegiances into a single homogeneous identity subordinate to the state is the privileged model, either—in fact, even the most fractious state will have to recur to that centralizing identity on occasion, making it simply part of a larger system of domination: a proxy of some kind. Where there are residual and possible allegiances (which exist even in non-immigrant societies, where nations are formed out of tribes or regions once subordinate to local kingdoms or aristocratic families), partial and local forms of responsibility can be delegated. Everyone should be grouped up, and groups should be allowed to exercise the executive and judicial powers needed to maintain themselves as such. What about individuals who want to escape their groups? Like quitting a job, you’d have to find another group willing to “adopt” outsiders, which they might have all kinds of reasons for doing. Think of the self-exiled black American artists who became, essentially, honorary Frenchmen and women over the course of the early to mid 20thcentury.

Liberalism abstracts, ruthlessly; counter-liberalism should concretize. The central authority wants all forms of authority to flow into its own, and that might involve inheriting residual and possible modes of authority borne by its people. A great deal of the ruler’s activity should involve issuing and supervising charters: for corporations, for townships, for local forms of authority, for associations of various kinds. If you want a recognized identity, apply to the central authority for a charter, or apply to subscribe to an authority that has already been chartered. The more generic, and potentially disruptive identities, like those promoted by feminism, can be broken down and sorted out: women’s groups focused on the education of women, on moral improvement, on counseling wives, on the preservation of traditional ceremonies and customs, and so on. If a woman wants to experience womanhood in sisterly relations with other women, there can be plenty of opportunities for that in non-antagonistic forms. If an identity can’t really be chartered for some purpose the central authority can acknowledge, then it’s best to let it dissolve.

Through all of this, to be an individual is to be a morally responsible person. This involves, not imagining oneself outside of, and victimized by, “society,” but establishing practices that defer centralizing violence. What is important is the character of the violent intention one resists, not its target: seditious violence against the state can display the same mimetic contagion as the merciless bullying of an unpopular child, and both cases require an inspection of the authorities that have allowed the contagion to grow to the point where outside intervention has become necessary. But moral action can only be carried out through the identities. The media strategy of dispersal and incorporation involves providing models of victimary self-centering and transgressive charisma. You can put yourself on the market as a victim of the normal, or as a defender of such victims who exposes the oppressive underbelly of the normal. It’s a way of taking yourself hostage and demanding the ransom payment. This media strategy works because it managed to plug into the dominant, pre- and non-Christian, heroic narratives of mass culture, which always involve a single man or small group of men defeating many more or much more powerful enemies in defense of the victims of those evil enemies. Reprogramming that narrative is a simple matter because the vicarious pleasure taken by the viewer is too obvious and too obviously exploited and hence somewhat shameful when exposed explicitly—so, the pleasure can only be preserved if the evil enemy is turned into some “exemplary deviation” from the cultural source of the heroic narrative itself. So, Captain America has to fight, not the Nazis, but the Nazi within all of us, embedded in what we take to be normal. His charisma becomes transgressive; but, as I said, this is not so difficult to accomplish, because constructing perfectly evil villains already elicits a kind of guilty transgressive pleasure—unrestrained violence is allowed where it normally wouldn’t be.

Centralizing violence, then, is primarily directed against the normal, or what we could call the normalest normal, the exemplary normal. The normal that’s so normal it has no idea how oppressive it really is. Obviously, in today’s culture this means white+male+Christian+straight+conservative+middle class. Moral action then needs to deflect this centralizing violence from the normal, but this is no easy matter—defending some ordinary guy against a virulent hate campaign because he said something currently deemed racist or sexist invites comparisons between his suffering and all the suffering that has been experienced historically, even if not in this particular case, by those who might, following some familiar if far-fetched chain of consequences, be possibly victimized through the racist or sexist statement. And there’s no transhistorical frame for determining the right terms of comparison. How do you weigh the humiliation and economic deprivation experienced by some middle class white guy against hundreds of years of violence done to black bodies, etc. To defend someone is to enter the legalistic game of attack and defend, and even if you can occasionally manage to turn the tables the prosecutorial initiative always lies with the defenders of the marked on the market against the unmarked.

The normal is the unmarked, and the postmodern critique that norms produce their own deviations is self-evidently true. The lives saved and improved, the cultural “equipment” made possible, because of the restraints placed on desires and resentments so as to reinforce the most local centers, are all invisible; those chafing under those restraints, unable to comply with them through, arguably, no fault of their own, are highly visible. The long term horizon of liberalism is that we will all be unmarked; until then we must keep up the war against the unmarked, who by definition, “structurally,” mark the others. If we are to get to the condition of universal unmarkedness, then, that means the most marked of today (the transgendered handicapped Somali refugee…) will someday become the norm. But does it not follow, then, that at the origin of any norm is the most marked? There is nothing more marked than inhabiting the name others ostensively designate you with because that’s who you in fact have turned out to have been. To be marked is to perform the paradox of self-reference—to be both liberated and constrained by the name. Everyone’s mimetic rivalry circles around this marked one, and mimetic violence is always just below the threshold of convergence upon him while he manages to expose the potential violence, make a nomos out of it, and recruit everyone to defer early on future signs of such violence. This is where a new norm comes from.

Moral action, then, entails performing the hypothetical origin of the norm. This involves opening a disciplinary space within the disciplines—it is the disciplines that control the system of naming. The disciplines can say, “X is Y,” or someone characterized by this feature is going, according to some probability we are competent to establish, to have this other feature. Go ahead and treat X as if he has this other feature, then—the burden of proof is on him. This organization of reality is inevitable, and only immoral if a space is not left open for that burden of proof to be met. Moral action is meeting that burden of proof while imposing a like burden on the disciplinary agents who establish it—what, exactly, do sociologists, psychologists, economists, etc., and the activists mimicking them at a distance, “tend” to do? The terms establishing burdens of proof all come from the nominalizations resulting from the supplementations of literacy, upon which the disciplines are founded. A word like “legitimacy” will have been derived from precise rituals and ceremonies that would have once served to mark one as institutionally recognized; now, it’s an abstract concept manipulated by those in the disciplines taking sides in power struggles. In that case, there’s a kind moral “arbitrage” that can be enacted by referring the competing nominalizations in any confrontation back to these power struggles. Attaching various “qualities” (the “Ys” mentioned above) to, say, “white males,” indicates some power differential—the “accuser” thinks this will be effective in someway. What power does it enact? Well, “history,” or “equality,” or “morality”—OK, but name some people, institutions, powerful figures embodying this power. Whom are they contending with, and for which discernable stakes? What will the victor be able to determine? Sure, in placing a burden of proof back on you (“people who believe in ‘racism’ are…”), I’m also hoping to leverage one power against another. In that case, no one is unmarked. That must mean we all want everyone to be marked in such a way as to defer, rather than incite, centralizing violence against them. The power struggles circulating through us make that impossible—each power can contend against the other only by means of incitement. The most moral thing to do then—to sound Kantian—is to act as if my act will increase the likelihood of an orderly arrangement of power that will mark (“(re)deem”) everyone accordingly—even though I can’t know in advance where I might fall within that order (a little bit of Rawls there as well). I’m a sign of disorder if that prospect repels you (and you need your dose of centralizing violence), and of order if you can imagine a complementary relinquishment on your part. In that way—to sound Nietzschean—we forge new norms. We return the disciplinary nominalizations back into acts conferring faith, trust and loyalty. The markings of racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/… are converted into notations on the accomplishments and responsibilities those charges aim at dispersing.

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