GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

June 4, 2019

Center and Origin: The Name-of-the-Center and Centered Names

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:04 am

Any center is fit out with a link to the origin—therein lies its power. Even more, any center is itself an origin, an ever emergent origin. Any use of a sign entrains the entire history of sign use and any articulation of joint attention iterates the originary scene. Sometimes, due to semiotic and bureaucratic drift, the origin needs to be retrieved, but that just means a particular element or moment of the scene has replaced the scene as a whole. The most likely “culprit” is the deceleratory moment of the scene, when all the participants conform their respective gestures to the norm that has emerged on the scene. This “settling in” would be the most memorable part of the scene, and the one that would be confirmed and conformed to even more precisely in ritual. We regularly have recourse to this element of the scene—even in the course of some innovation or disruption much of the scene must be held steady as a kind of “control” so that the novelty can stand out by contrast. When engaged in the “producers desire” to remember the origin this need for control is forgotten, and only the resistance of others on the scene can establish limits to the unfamiliar gesture.

Whatever or whoever is at any center succeeds in a direct line to the central object on the originary scene. The most mediocre president of a fourth-rate country carries this lineage; for that matter, so does a bored substitute teacher in a classroom in a failing urban school. Everyone looks to the center to determine what to do, even if what to do is to defy or ridicule the center, because the central figure is telling you, in not so many words, that he has not inhabited or impersonated the resources the center provides for exercising the power of deferral. If the figure occupying the immediate center allows the baton passed from the object on the originary scene to drop, all those present on the scene are obliged either to prop up that center or turn to a new one. If the central figure can’t or won’t issue those commands that will tie this scene to the history of scenes so as to provide those present with the roles or masks they need to organize themselves ordinally around the center, they will treat the central figure as a negative indicator pointing to the commands that should have been uttered, that have been uttered under “analogous” conditions, that can be obeyed even without having been uttered. Once someone is placed in a position where he has to lead or clog things up, those he is responsible for can build their own little centers around the clog or treat him as if he is leading—whether either approach turns out to be subversive or galvanizing will depend upon the response of the potential leader, or the emergence of a new one.

This discussion is necessary because while I have been generating a new way of using the concept of the center within GA I have not sufficiently insisted on the fact that “origin” and “center” are complementary ways of referring to the constitution of the event. This can make it sound like central power stands and commands on its own, which comes close to sounding like an exercise of brute force, while in fact central power resides in the power of the origin. If we need to make the distinction between “power” and “authority” we can say that “power” draws upon the power of the origin while “authority” carries it forward and extends it. You need both—even mere drawing upon and preservation of the center implies at least some “extension.” Now we can speak of something equivalent to “legitimacy,” or the intrinsic relation between ostensive and imperative, as residing in the more specific origin of any community. The communist or liberal or revolutionary or usurpationist origin of the country where you find your obligations, then, cannot be “illegitimate.” What can be the case is that, because the origin of the existing mode of power has weakened or interrupted the line of origins, the commands issued by that central authority cannot be filled in or complemented in the act of obedience. There is always a gap between the imperative issued and the imperative obeyed, and that gap is filled in by complementing the imperative with the enabling imperatives preceding it. Those enabling imperatives don’t just confirm the authority of the commander (like asking the manager whether your supervisor can really have you do this) but provide essential information regarding how to do it.

Eric Gans has referred to the emergence of the Big Man, i.e., the “usurpation” of the center by a person, as a “second revelation.” I have been arguing that the development of literacy represents a similarly second revelation in relation to the oral/ritual world. Tying these two revelations together is the one Gans refers to as the monotheistic revelation, enacted for a single people via the Mosaic revelation and then for all humans in the Christian one. (As I usually do in these discussions, I’ll make the necessary but inadequate gesture towards equivalent developments in the East, in Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism.) This “post-sacrificial,” or “charismatic,” revelation of the “absolute imperative” (to defer rather than sacralize centralizing violence) is the revelation that completes that of the Big Man and that of literacy. What has happened is that we now have a center irreducible to the central authority who issues imperatives, a center with which we no longer have direct access to via “imperative exchange.” These enormous upheavals involved a radical break and alienation from the origin of specific groups, much less the origin of humanity, which as a consequence has to now be retrieved through practices enacting the heeding of the absolute imperative. Such practices require declarative formulation, because the remnants of those specific events (the revelation on Mt Sinai; the crucifixion) upon in which the absolute imperative was heard must be supplemented for communities (that is, all communities) which cannot live and sacrifice on the actual site of the revelation.

These practices are constructed through the naming of events of origin—more precisely, origins of a particular revelation of the absolute imperative (which is always revealing itself in new ways). A country, an institution, an organization, must have such an origin if the commands issued by its central authority are to be effectively obeyed. We can say that all individuals are named because all individuals are such sites of origin: when a new baby is born, we refrain from sacrificing it, certainly literally, but also in the sense of claiming to control or predict who that baby will become. If something changes, it retrieves or repudiates its origin, in the process creating a new one. Insofar as we are all centers, we are all events of origin, and named as such—not just our given name, although the importance of that never completely disappears, not just new names we adopt, titles, nicknames, and so on, but the declarative names people give us and we give, or try to give, ourselves: statements, descriptions, stories and so on—insofar as they single us out, they name us.

The center as named provides us with a way of rejecting familiar ways of speaking about “the society and the individual.” I would reject all talk of the “individual” within GA, as well as the concept of an “internal scene of representations” which Eric Gans uses to refer to a kind of privatized space we can trace back to the sparagmos. The individual is always constituted in relation to, which means hearing imperatives from, the center—everything that we do is in obedience to a command from the center. We can speak of a relation between the name-of-the-center and the centered name. We are nothing more than our names, beginning with the socially recognized name to be found on our driver’s license, paychecks, tax returns, diplomas, and so on, but, revolving around that name all the other names that refer to it more or less directly. What the “second revelation,” in the totality I just presented, means in these terms is a shift from a name of the center we can be named after to a name-of-the-center that can only be named in its namelessness. Naming, I am assuming, was originally a way of commemorating and affirming obligations to ancestors, who were worshipped; we are still often named after ancestors, but we don’t worship them and what we worship we don’t take as a source of names—rather, what we worship is the source of naming as an act.

At the same time, as Gans has pointed out on more than one occasion, every word is the Name-of-God. We have to take “every word” in the broadest possible sense here—a sentence can be the Name-of-God; indeed, the name of God in Exodusis, as Gans has often emphasized, a sentence. A book can be the name of God. Our individual names, then, are also the Name-of-God, but the Name-of-God as given within a particular historical stream, at a particular point within that stream. And names change, while referring to previous names when they do. I came across a quote from Richard Feyman recently: “knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it.” Within its context, Feynman’s statement is obviously true, but I am arguing for a diametrically opposed way of thinking about it: if you don’t understand something, that just means that you don’t know its name—its “proper” name, its “real” name, or, if we want to be a little technical, its name in the event of naming. Coming to know or understand something is coming to name it in the disciplinary event of deciding it needs to be named, trying out different names, arriving at one, testing it, and so on. This is an event within which some unnamed object within a system of names becomes available for ostensive reference, and must be named in order to maintain the completeness of the system of names.

I think these formulations have important consequences. Not only do a whole set of pseudo-problems regarding the “individual,” his interiority, his identity, evaporate, or get resolved into the single, always asked, never conclusively answered question, “who are you,” but if all we have in a social order are names everything is part of the social order in a constitutive, originary manner from the very beginning. You are not in the world until you have entered through your name. The way we constitute and present ourselves as centers is through entering or inhabiting our names, projecting a possible new name for ourselves, repudiating an old or attributed one, among other possible acts. Even more, these formulations advance the mode of engagement I have been coming to propose through the concept of “originary satire.” Not always, but often, satire works through conflating individuals with their names, and with the satirist himself taking on a name so as to move through the system of names he has reduced the surrounding impersonations to. Satire is an attempt to further refine names until they position someone or something or some event on the originary scene, retrieved prior to the second revelation. That is, to refine the names until they name something on the scene at its most scenic, where the issue is in question, where the sign has not yet been normalized, and where our own naming therefore completes the scene. The satiric dimension within the esthetic is this moment of the scene at its most scenic, where we have what Gans once referred to as the “fearful symmetry” where each is at once potential victim and potential attacker, threatening and vulnerable simultaneously. The scene is completed simply by having a “critical mass” of participants see each other this way, because enough people seeing each other this way and showing that they see each other this way isthe sign. When we’re speaking with each other we’re really just naming each other and everything that makes us each other. Realizing this can make our discourse very ad hominem; but it could also make it very ad deum; at any rate, focusing exclusively on each other’s names as named by the unnamable Name-of-the-Center, which is itself nothing but the space opened up for receiving our names, would make us extremely ad centrum.

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