GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 26, 2019

The Central Imaginary

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:33 pm

A while back I formulated the concept of the “sovereign imaginary.” This concept represents the assumption anyone makes who expresses a desire or some resentment, who says “we should…” or “someone should…,” regarding some authority who could do the thing “we should” do. If you say “Medicare for all,” you imply a model of a state that would implement Medicare for all and would do so in the way you intend. If you say “Medicare for all” you’re not thinking of the frauds that will be parasitic on it, the bureaucrats who will make cruel and capricious decisions, the drug companies that will donate to politicians who will push to have their drugs purchased at high prices, etc. In other words, you airbrush out of the picture all of the crisscrossing powers that would make the reality of Medicare for all far different from the intentions of its supporters. You imagine a unitary executive power, who issues orders that will be obeyed by subordinates, who will in turn issue orders obeyed by their subordinates; you imagine competent people with integrity placed where they belong and allowed to do their jobs. Even if you say, yes, I know there is corruption and incompetence and that bureaucracies develop their own interests, etc., you are still assuming that these are marginal to the sovereign power you imagine—if not, you wouldn’t be able to say “we should…” This seems to me a very useful observation to make because, if it is accepted by an interlocutor (and it’s very hard to deny), the following conclusion is also very hard to evade: such a sovereign power might have very different ideas on how to handle the health care system, and, freed of all the interfering powers (all the conflicting “we shoulds”) would have very little reason to care what you think. So, implicit in your political desire is its cancellation. Even better, the same must be true for me, and for anyone else participating in the conversation. So, instead of arguing about Medicare for all vs. private insurance vs. treatment for cash, we can talk amicably about something upon which we have just found we agree: there “should be” a central authority that can carry out policies unhindered by interest groups, nosy NGOs, bureaucratic factions, and so on.

Now, we are no more in a position to institute our desire for clear and secure central authority than we are to implement our version of Medicare for all, and so arguments over how to do this are equally pointless. We don’t need to imitate the pathetic revolutionary movements that split into a dozen factions over how to define a particular institutional reality or assess a particular event. But we are now listening to the center, and we can ask, what kind of practices will enable us to project possible paths towards clarified and security central authority, to prioritize among those paths, to invest what energy and resources we have in the most favorable paths, all the while maintaining our initial agreement that all our desires and resentments indeed point in that direction. Even more, the projection of possible paths and the prioritization among them should be guided by the need to maximize that agreement, to spread it, and to ground it more thoroughly in the disciplinary spaces we enter and sustain. That is the kind of activity that will let us see the possible paths when they take shape, and to distinguish among the opportunities they offer. What is essential here is that this imaginary is in our language—no one expressing a political desire can be exempt. So, every conversation about every policy or every social evil (poverty, “racism,” etc.) can be directly converted into a conversation about the kind of authority you seem to be imagining as capable of eliminating or mitigating that evil (or perhaps redefining it as not-evil) or implementing that policy, and the kind anthropological, epistemological, ontological, and so on assumptions you must be making so as to consider such an authority worth considering. And this approach can be applied to all of culture, not just narrowly political discussions—a movie will represent a particular sovereign imaginary, as will a dispute between parent and child, a conversation between friends, a psychological theory, and so on. Even if you want to argue for democracy or liberalism, you have to be imagining a sovereign that can protect “free speech,” the integrity of elections, whatever you imagine to be the role of the media in informing the public, and all the rest. Even a globalist, even an anarchist, inhabits a sovereign imaginary, whether it be international human rights courts and organizations mediating trade disputes, on the one hand, or spontaneously formed agreements between unbound individuals, on the other hand. The sovereign imaginaries, when acknowledged, are the starting point of needed conversations; when unacknowledged, are the sources of all the conflicts over the actual sovereign. So, making them explicit is the first step toward ending those conflicts, towards overcoming ideology.

Needless to say, I continue to consider this concept essential and unimpeachable. But I formulated it before I had thought through sufficiently the consequences of installing, so to speak, the concept of sovereignty at the heart of absolutist theory. The concept is itself ultimately a liberal one, assuming a “natural” condition of violence among abstract individuals that can only be quelled by a sovereign with direct power over each individual. It is better to see ruling as helping to maintain and enhance the peace preserved throughout the social order by its various corporate powers and governors. I have come to use the term “central authority” rather than sovereign, and so I will now speak in terms of a “central imaginary.” This should also help to conserve, within this concept, the concept of “listening to the center,” which I have discussed in quite a few recent posts. We listen to the center as the center speaks through our central imaginary. Once we have identified the central imaginary as the “topic” of our conversation, we can start to seek out imperatives from the center. Once I find in my desire for Medicare for all a faith in the possibility of clear and secure authority, I cannot but start to think of what I must do to increase the future possibility of such an authority. This imperative, and the subsidiary ones it generates, concerning maximizing agreement on this point, now restructures all my transactions with the world. And I start working on reshaping the declarative order by composing declarative sentences that answer the questions those imperatives turn into as the means of fulfilling them are exhausted in a particular case.

So the problem then becomes, how to think of that theoretical, declarative practice. I must engage with a particular person who happens to be crossing my path in some consequential way so as to enhance our agreement regarding the existing traces and elements of a clear and secure order. But I’m talking with this person and no way of fulfilling that imperative fills me with confidence at the moment, so the imperative converts itself into an interrogative, which is a way of demanding information rather than commanding a specific act. How do I arrive at a “good” answer to that question? How do we talk about doing so productively? The disciplinary space we need here should be filled with thought experiments. In devising such thought experiments, we can derive inspiration from the kinds of experiments cognitive psychologists devise in order to identify the various cognitive thresholds children pass through. David Olson made much use of these experiments in order to determine the cognitive consequences of literacy. So, you want to see whether children of a certain age, or certain degree of exposure to literacy, are capable of understanding the concept of having been wrong—that is, of realizing that they know something now that they didn’t before. You can give them a box with pictures of candies on the cover and ask them what they think is in it. Candies, of course. You open the box, and it’s something quite different—say, pencils. What is in the box? Pencils. What did you think was in it before? Pencils! The children are incapable of grasping the concept of moving from one state of mind to another in response to changes in observed reality. Or, you show children a man opening a drawer and finding something in it—neckties, say. The man leaves the room. The children see someone else come in and replace the neckties with bowties. You then ask the children: when the man comes back, what will he expect to find in the drawer? Bowties, they say. They can’t separate what they know from what someone else knows—they don’t yet have a “theory of mind.”

The question then is, what distinction or threshold do we want to uncover when our imperatives from the center turn into interrogatives that “command” us to compose a declarative response? What opens space to hear the imperatives of the center is deferral, which also means deferring to the other and waiting for a reciprocal gesture of deferral in turn. This is not a question of politeness of considerateness (not that there’s anything wrong with them) but of developing a discovery procedure: from another’s ability or lack thereof to defer an imposition of a compelling resentment we discern the extent to which he is ready to open inquiry into future imperatives from the central authority.

Derrida associated “defer” with “differ,” and the two words are really the same. If we want to “assess” deferral, we can therefore do it through practices of differentiation. The originary scene ends, and, more importantly, is remembered as ending, with everyone putting forth an identical gesture: hence the strictness with which ritual (not to mention grammatical conventions) is enforced. But on the originary scene there would have had to have been significant differentiation: not everyone’s sign was issued simultaneously, was held equally long, was equally well-formed, was equally responsive to the preliminary gestures and potential lapses of others. Future instances of deferral will require someone to re-activate the generative scene out of the ritualized and habitualized one. Tacitly acknowledged elements of social practices need to be turned into signs. This is not a difference between “progressive” and “reactionary”: even the preservation of traditional practices requires this kind of renewal.

The practices of literacy constellated in “classical prose” are similarly homogenized through the supplementation of an imagined represented speech scene by metalinguistic devices aimed at placing all readers with each other and the writer on that imagined speech scene. The study of language required to create classical prose makes language into the center of a disciplinary scene; the generation of future disciplinary scenes will depend upon turning those metalinguistic devices into centers of new disciplinary scenes. If you take metalinguistic representations as referring to “objects” (“beliefs,” “assumptions,” etc.) your discipline will simply reiterate the construction of “prosaic” metalinguistic literacy itself. Of course, it’s necessary to hold some concepts constant while you work with others, but that’s just a question of the degree of “flux” you want in the disciplinary space so as to conduct a particular inquiry, not of more “constant” vs. more “variable” objects or domains of reality.

You use a concept (like “assumptions”) in a particular way for a particular inquiry, which differentiates that use of the concept from the history of usage it derives from. That history of usage has taken shape in a normative center of usage, which your own usage will to some degree imperfectly iterate. Now, we can assume that the speaker’s meaning is the same as the word’s meaning, which collapses the very distinction introduced by literacy. In this case, our meta-inquiry will concern itself with guaranteeing the normativity of the use of the concept. This is a way of resisting any differentiation beyond that required to ensure the continuation of the discipline itself. In a sense, you are then like the child who thinks he always thought there were pencils in the box, and like the participant on the originary scene who forgets the event itself in its ritualization. Or, you can accentuate the difference, indeed the differences, between your use of the concept and those circulating around the normative center. The purpose of doing this is not a romantic attempt to make yourself a center of hostile attention in what is really just another ritualized form of modernist individualization. Rather, you want to ensure the commensurability of speaker’s meaning and word’s meaning—not by policing deviations from the latter, though, but by making explicit the supplementary character of the meta-concepts of literacy. We have concepts like “assumptions” and “beliefs” because the iteration of the sign is always problematic, and always requires a disciplinary “gathering” or “assembly.” In a sense, the most fundamental human question, the question upon which our emergence depended, is whether this sign that we use now is indeed the same sign as when we used it before. Literacy makes this question explicit, and all subsequent media do so as well in different ways. We need for the sign to be the same in its different uses, but if we imagine that it simply is the same, we commit ourselves to resisting differentiation. The only thing that makes the sign the same is that members of a disciplinary space establish continuity with other uses of the sign, which means with other disciplinary spaces. Accentuating the difference of the sign is taking on the responsibility of the disciplinary community: it is the way we make this concept our own and potentially others’ out of all the other ways other disciplinary spaces have done this. Only in this way can you remember that you first thought there was candy in the box, and what changed your mind; and you can remember the bustling, hypothetical scene even as you fill your allotted role in the rituals and habits in which its residue is deposited.

Perhaps the whole of a “centered” social and political practice lies in devising experiments for determining how a given practice is determining the sameness of the sign it is centered on.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Blog with the Central Imaginary…on the concept of this central authority who should fix […]

    Pingback by Cantandum in Ezkhaton 03/31/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores — March 31, 2019 @ 10:20 am

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