GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 12, 2019


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:24 am

Dialectics is the rendering of paradox pragmatic. There are two ways of thinking about dialectics. One is as a mode of generating new ideas through probing, critical dialogue, in which each side tries to make explicit the assumptions underlying the other’s discourse. This notion of dialectics goes back to Socrates, and a particularly interesting modern example can be found in R.G. Collingwood’s understanding of dialectics as the attempt to find agreement underlying disagreement. The agreement, which, in Derridean terms, was “always already” there (insofar as argument was possible in the first place), is nevertheless, once explicated, a position that neither side knew they held in advance. In other words, something both originary and new emerges.

The other way of thinking about dialectics is as a way of understanding a historical process, or even as that process itself, whereby events are generated by contradictions in an existing social form, so new configurations emerge which both fulfill and confute the intentions of the actors who initiated them. Historical dialectics acquired a bad name as a result of its association with orthodox Marxism, which used “dialectical materialism” as a ‘guarantee” of both the inevitability and justice of its own victory, but Eric Gans employs a much subtler version in his account of the emergence of the imperative speech form from the ostensive and then the declarative speech form from the imperative (by way of the interrogative). Here, the shared intentionality bound up in a particular sign is put to the test (“contradicted” by) an “inappropriate” use of that sign; the tension is resolved as the desire to maintain shared intention (“linguistic presence”) generates a new speech form, “recouping” the “mistake.”

Unlike Marxist dialectics, this Gansian version allows for all the times where this “transcendence” of the previous form would fail to take place—linguistic presence can be broken, and some form of violence and social crisis ensues. The result of a dialectical process, then, can only be assured once the new form has been spread through imitation sufficiently so that it has proven itself capable of deferring the antagonisms those failures would have aggravated. In other words, “historical dialectics” proceeds in a manner beyond the intentions of any participant, but must be “authenticated” by shared intentionality at each point along the way and eventually yield a higher level of shared intentionality. But this also means that the two meanings of “dialectic” are one: the emergence of new historical forms is a process of more advanced dialogues taking place at the margins and gradually providing the means of deferral that enable a reconstructed center to resolve some crisis. Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific revolution provides us with the best model for understanding this process: the margins where the more advanced, “disciplinary” dialogues are taking place are where those who have perceived the anomalies of the existing social order in such a way as to doubt whether they can be “recouped” within that order produce questions invisible within that order. Their work is then focused on developing and trying out possible paradigms that might replace the prevailing one.

We could see the emergence of Generative Anthropology itself in just such dialectical terms. At the center, according to the originary hypothesis, sits a potential victim. It is in designating this potential victim, and refraining from victimizing it, that the sign emerges and the group is formed. But how did this clear, minimal insight become possible? If the making of victims is a matter of course, whether it be through conquest, those in power destroying those who might pose even a distant threat, sacrifice, mass slavery, and so on, one would never consider that the production of victims could be a source of any significant insights. In fact, I wonder whether a word equivalent to “victim” would even have been used (the word “victim” itself, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, comes from the creature brought as a sacrifice). Certainly those whom we would today consider victims, like conquered, displaced and massacred populations, would have not thought of themselves in those terms: they would know, of course, that they had been bereft of their gods, rituals, territory, wealth, kinsfolk, institutions, and so on, and they would mourn all this and bemoan their destruction or enslavement, but this would be a source of shame and loss of faith more than of a complaint anyone would be expected to attend to. Our gods have failed us, or we failed our gods; what else is there to say?

Only with the emergence of justice systems can the notion of a “victim” be conceptualized—that is, once wrongs are not addressed directly through a vendetta but through some socially sanctioned process of determining punishment. This indicates an added degree of deferral, which opens a new realm of paradoxes. The law is established so as to do justice, because “justice” by definition is the proper allotment as determined by anyone who is in the “right” position to determine it—so, something we could call “law,” even if that means the sifting through, by legal professionals, of privileged precedents, rather than a written code, will emerge with the concept of “justice.” But, then, isn’t “justice” merely an effect of what the law, with its own institutional history, has decided? In that case how do we determine whether the law has been rightly decided? For this, we must step outside of the system, to reclaim its origin, but this stepping outside is a dialectical process which requires the model of the exemplary victim of the justice system itself. At that point, the concept of the victim becomes increasingly central culturally until, in Christianity, we have the worship of the exemplary victim. As Christianity permeates all cultural sites to the extent that it can be detached from its origins and its victimolatry separated from the carefully demarcated exemplary victim defining it, all of culture comes to be obsessed with the search for victims and self-representation as victims. The history of democracy, liberalism and romanticism trace this negation of Christianity from within Christianity. With post-structuralism, even language becomes grounded in victimization. Victimary thinking becomes so central as have destroyed any “other” it could distinguish itself from for some moral purpose. Once this ontological colonialism has proceeded to a certain point, it becomes possible to consider that it is not victimization that is at the origin, but a refusal to victimize. And then it becomes possible to think the originary hypothesis.

We can posit a related dialectic as the form of modern politics. Eric Gans speaks of an oscillation between “firstness” and “reciprocity” as constitutive of liberal democracy, but this can’t be a dialectic because nothing new can come out of it. The distributive demands of the moral model will always be assailing the innovators and merit-based hierarchical structures that make those demands for equality possible in the first place. The only thing that could keep the pendulum swinging back and forth is a sufficient degree of cynicism on the part of the redistributors—they must know, as the Schumers and Pelosis surely do, that the eat the rich and get whitey talk is just to keep the contributions flowing and the voters and activists mobilized—they know better than to actually kill the goose laying the golden eggs. But their successors, like AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and others, don’t know this. They’ve grown up saturated in the political simulacra of Media Matters, and take all the egalitarian talk quite literally. Even if they “grow in office” and realize what the progressive ideals are really for, we wouldn’t really have a dialectic: the increasing disparity between ideals and the cynicism with which they are advanced can’t lead to anything new. Even if the pendulum keeps swinging, all it can lead to is more corruption and more advanced degeneration.

We could, though, speak of a dialectic between the model of the originary scene and the model of the “second revelation,” that of the Big Man. Here we have a genuine dialectic that has always produced cultural novelties. Ancient Israelite monotheism—the name of God as the declarative sentence—is itself a product of this dialectic: a retrieval of the originary relation to a shared center on the terrain created by the ancient empires, heirs of the Big Men. Rather than a figurable center, like a sacrificial animal, a non-figurable God; rather than a sacred grounded in ritual specific to a closed community, a relation to the center any people could imitate; rather than a deity with whom to engage in imperative exchange, a God who commands reciprocity with our neighbor. But neither Israelite monotheism, nor its Christian and Islam successors, reject monarchy—rather they, seek to constrain and edify it. Nor do any of these faiths recommend a universally shared relation to the center that would override all hierarchical political institutions: the imperative to seek the peace of the kingdom where you live is always intact—and, of course the Israelite God is Himself paradoxically and scandalously, national as well as universal. As with any dialectic, new problems are generated out of the solutions of old ones.

Liberalism might be seen as an attempt to stall this dialectic by internalizing it within the economy, producing a pseudo-dialectic between expanded production and expanded consumption. This also cannot create anything new. But if we see the adherence to the model of the originary scene as itself a product of struggles between hierarchs seeking to efface their descent from the Big Man, we can set the dialectic in motion again. The logical endpoint of victimocratization would be the direct branding, like with sports stadiums, of groups demanding absolute, genuflecting respect from anyone marginally more normal than them by corporations defending their fiefdoms within the global distribution process. Facebook’s Women’s March; Amazon’s Black Lives Matter; Google’s Committee to End Transphobia, etc. The “antithesis” to this WokeCapital hearkening back to the emergent originary scene is, first, that the position of the hierarch is left unclaimed; and, second the originary scene as configured around a center has also been abandoned. Pretty much anyone who asserts the right to issue commands, and the grace to obey them, simply because there has to be a social center, is an avatar of autocracy, and heir to the Big Man, consciously or not. And virtually anyone who gathers others together to study some thing unresentfully, letting the object speak or, in Heideggerese, “be,” has created a direct line back to the originary scene. The “synthesis” comes when those forming disciplinary spaces turn their attention to the emergent autocrats, and those autocrats revise their command structures upon receiving feedback from the disciplinary spaces.

This “synthesis” can only take place in the middle, in the meeting of those upholding the normal and some “allotment,” and those marginal to the official disciplines. Together they will have to form a “spine” which can act once enough elites realize that their role is to govern in their own name rather than ginning up the mobs in whose name they can then claim to govern. But this involves keeping a kind of double dialectic at work. On the one hand, there is the dialectic between WokeCapital and the disciplinary/disciplined, as the latter learn from the negative example of the former how to disentangle the command structure from the demand for sparagmos now. On the other hand, there is ongoing dialectic between the disciplined and disciplinary themselves, as the former imbibe modes of moral and ethical prescription from the latter, while the latter learns from the former to be more pragmatic and pedagogical, to be that hardest thing of all for thinkers—useful. The norm-setting distinction of the victim currently situated most antipodally to the normal can then be met by the re-marking of the normal as the vertex of convergent resentments.

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