GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 29, 2019


Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:17 am

Jurgen Habermas saw the differentiation into various spheres of life, whether in terms of public and private, or the different forms of experience like cognition, aesthetics and ethics, as central to modernity. He was right about that—the disciplinary distinctions were necessary for the dismantling of an order centered on God and King, for breaking up the grounding of the human order in the heavenly one. We can see a much earlier, preliminary form of differentiation in the ancient Greek city-state, where Aristotle could write separate treatises on logic, ethics, aesthetics, politics and metaphysics. This is possible once sacred kingship has been overturned, and sacred kingship was overturned once sacral rule came to rely on the growing plebeian population outside of the sacred order. The sacred order gives no formal recognition of conflicts: actions either conform to or violate the ritual order, so if there’s a conflict it’s between those defending the ritual order and those penalized by it. Those outside of the sacred order, though, can only be recognized in the form of a conflict, first of all between plebeians and patricians. Further social divisions, say into different plebeian classes, will then be represented on the same model. Once these conflictual models become the dominant ones, the ruler can no longer be the one who occupies the sacred center. The king is replaced by the tyrant, the inventor of the method of levying the “low” against the “middle” in order to maintain his power as the one who can balance and mediate between the contending classes.

What must the tyrant do? What is he permitted to do? Why should one person rather than another be the tyrant? The answers to these questions can no longer come from the guardians of the sacred. They can only come from the disciplines, first of all philosophy. If the tyrant becomes a separate “problem,” then human life in general can be broken down into separate problems. The way this happens will correspond to institutional diremptions from the sacred: so, for example, “aesthetics” can become a separate discipline because the theater, primarily concerned with the doings of the various tyrants occupying and contesting the center, has been created as a new center modeled on the sacred. Similarly, ethics can become a separate discipline once the family (and especially the head of the family) has been separated from the sacred order, rhetoric once arguing in the law courts becomes the way conflicts are framed and mediated, and logic once disputes within philosophy need to be settled. The proliferation of disciplines in the modern world corresponds to the proliferation of institutional distinctions. And the proliferation of institutions in the modern world is a result of the way the problem of the tyrant presents itself with the removal of the monarchs who had occupied the center since the middle ages: as a whole network of safeguards against the emergence of the tyrant. No one can occupy the center other than temporarily, conditionally, under strict supervision. Modernity is predicated not on helping the occupant of the center govern, but on ensuring he never feels at home there.

The vocation of the disciplines, then, is to train a population that can sustain the revolving center. This involves disciplining for obedience, but obedience to the same rules that obligate the ruler. This calls for an odd combination of self-reliance, insistence on self-origination, adherence to bureaucratic rules, resentment toward anyone whose life seems less strictly rule-governed, romantic resentment of those rules, an attraction to scandals, and the compartmentalization of “selves.” Such an order is intrinsically hostile to anyone who acts as a “tyrant,” that is, exercising authority and making decisions that can’t be completely traced back to the rules determining legitimacy. The levying of masses against responsible authority figures by elites competing over access to the center is therefore a natural fit to this order. Patriarchal power, the power of a coherent and dominant ethnic group, parental power, policing power, even the self-control that enables one to exercise or conform to these modes of power, are all, at root, tyrannical. Attempts to subject these tyrants to rules will only succeed in exposing those ineradicable tyrannical roots. The disciplines both lead the attempt to formulate the rules for tyrants, and encourage the rebellion against them.

The restoration of authority that can only appear tyrannical to liberal thinking is therefore bound up with dedifferentiating the disciplines. When we think in terms of the relation between morality and power, for example, we are conceding the differentiation of the disciplines: morality is defined in one arena (“Philosophy,” “Ethics”), and power in another (“Political Science”). This is no different than agonizing over distinctions between public and private, political and economic, and so on. But it’s not easy to package all these categories together coherently, so that when we’re talking about power we’re also speaking about morality, and authority, and economics and aesthetics and technology and media and so on. After all, the words exist and refer to different things, in different traditions of inquiry. The path to dedifferentiation is through the undoing of desacralization, of secularization. This doesn’t mean a restoration of previously ruling churches, or the restoration of the sacred. Rather, it means more direct, explicit and formal representations of our sociality, which is what the sacred is in the first place. The gods may have been more coherent representations of sociality, embedded in ritual practices, than what the disciplines provide us with now, which is an ever revised system of reaction-formations to system that is simultaneously and acceleratingly totalizing and individualizing. The disciplines help us to figure out ways of, say, leveraging legal power against imagined patriarchal power. Out of such things media representations and “identities” are constructed. But this doesn’t mean people could ever take the gods literally again, or that we could restore such a sacrificial order in good faith.

When someone speaks of “equality” it’s always possible to say: any way of filling in the blank in the sentence “equality means_______” is going to be just as meaningless as any other way. So, let’s play a new game: by all means tell me what you think equality means, but only under the condition that you describe to me who you envision instituting and enforcing that version of equality. This is an excellent way not only of exposing the antinomies and infinite regresses of “equality” (shouldn’t the means of determining who will implement “equality” also be determined “equally”?) and of exposing the assumptions regarding institutions and power underlying various arguments about equality. If there’s a version of “equality” that is consistent with a coherent way of enforcing “equality” then I’ll take it and we will find that we are no longer talking about equality at all but formal inclusion, which is to say naming.

When the objects of the disciplines appear as separate and autonomous it is because they are being separated in practice, and what separates them in practice is accusations of tyranny in some form or, more generally, charges of usurpation. No one really has unassailable reasons for being in the place they are, so it’s always possible to accuse the other of usurping yours or another’s. This always latent accusation is the kernel of secularism, which is to say the creation of new disciplines to monitor tendencies to tyranny in the old ones, and refusing it by saturating the other’s space serves morality, authority, coherent power and aesthetics alike. The other is not sacred, but we must model acknowledgment of the other’s centrality on the sacred (or, really, originary), while realizing that it is only by accepting this inevitably failed acknowledgement and representing this acceptance that the other can be secured against charges of usurpation. Our involvement in scenes, and contribution to their construction, which is to say our participation in media, is then geared toward deferring the accusation of usurpation: whatever our ultimate relation to the other, we can grant that the other is indeed in his place, to which we are happy to supply a name. Meanwhile, technology, which is to say our immersion in a network of devices that have synthesized collective practices and articulate us in other yet to be completed collective practices, can take on forms that lay us open to charges of usurpation or squash such charges. Efforts to discern and realize one form or the other, meanwhile, require awareness of the power relations working through technology. And this cannot be thought outside of the layers of distribution from the center referred to as “economics.”

In abolishing charges of usurpation, what is recovered of the originary order is the practice of naming—naming always comes from the center, and we are always ensuring that everyone is named, all practices and significant objects are named, and that all persons and things are named rightly, or are the same as their names. This is the case whether they are kings or criminals. Part of naming is providing for the destination inherent in the name, whether that’s the throne or prison. Wrongdoing or conflict derive from actions that require one to be renamed; good acts entail living into the names you’ve been given, and making oneself suited to unoccupied or newly formed named positions. There is also the possibility of inventing or creating a previously unimagined position, and awaiting acknowledgement from the system of names. This might turn out to be criminal, but the chances of that are reduced if the invention follows from working out to its limits some available model and name and presenting the invented position as meeting needs that those circulating around the extant ones didn’t know they had, but now can see they do. Invention then follows from resisting charges of usurpation and removing from one’s own actions gestures that would evoke such charges. You can insist on your place while insisting that others are always already in theirs, by endowing each other. And all disciplinary spaces are taken up with one and the same task of inquiry: ensuring that everyone is the same as their name.

October 20, 2019

Mimeticism and Morality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:02 pm

To act morally is to sustain the center, which means sustaining, repairing and extending the shared attention or linguistic presence that relies on the center. It’s possible to get more granular here, and speak about moral practices, and to do so in a way that will be inter-intelligible with Alasdair MacIntyre’s (in particular) moral thought. We can start with mimesis, or imitation, which is not only the starting point of originary thinking but, it seems, a sticking point with some of its critics among those whom Imperius calls “desacralized power analysts.” Originary thinking is more in agreement with classical thought, whether that of the ancient Greeks, the Hebrew Bible, or Christianity, all of which recognize the centrality of mimesis to sin and virtue. The sticking point for the desacralized power theorists is the very hard acknowledgement that imitation makes up all of who we are. It is very hard to deny this—what have you ever done or said that can’t be traced back to your imitation of some model? Even if someone says something undeniably new, which, of course, happens (in a sense everything everyone says is new), it is because you have successfully imitated someone else’s (or some composite model’s) way of inventing new statements. It’s hard to accept this, though. It violates our sense of individual and intellectual independence, to the point where, it one takes imitation seriously, can lead to panic—if everything is imitation, who am I? What do I ever say or do that I can actually claim is mine, and therefore control and take responsibility for? If I’m angry at someone, is this “real” anger or some mimetically produced anxiety (he represents something I’d like be)? If I love someone, is it out of mimetically generated emotions, like envy and jealousy, or something more “real”? There is a positive side of mimesis: instruction, emulation, the sharing of goods. The negative side is much easier to note, though, especially if we’re interested in moral and political theory: rivalry over scarce goods, especially moral goods like admiration, honor appreciation, and so on. And from a merely individual perspective, it’s very hard to distinguish the positive from the negative.


With imitation in mind, a moral practice would be one that transforms negative mimesis into positive mimesis. Since we’re always modeling each other and others (think of how quickly just about any conversation or relation takes on mimetic features, as the partners “mirror” each other’s attitudes, words and gestures), once we’re aware of this we can make it explicit. “You’re just saying Y because I just said X” is the passive aggressive way of doing this. The more graceful way of doing so is to extract a question from a possible misunderstanding of the other’s gesture or utterance and answer it in a way that makes visible the other’s miming without binding him to it. This is a pedagogical move, and in this sense I would say that all moral practices are pedagogical. This way of thinking about morality can scale up while also being extendible horizontally. If moral practices are pedagogical, then we can speak of every activity as a possible sphere of moral practice. Apprenticeships are pedagogical, parenting is pedagogical, friendships are pedagogical, organizations are pedagogical, governance is pedagogical. In doing things, we show each other how to do them. Status hierarchies are best understood as pedagogical—a good leader leads by modeling the practices pertinent to the shared tasks, but also the possible mimetic pitfalls to its accomplishment, along with their remedies. Pedagogy is reciprocal: the teacher must learn from the learner how to teach, and so the learner has to teach the teacher. Modern understandings of individuality and autonomy will lead to resistance to seeing all relationships as pedagogical, but this is modernity’s way of destroying all intermediate relationships and institutions—by severing the cords of pedagogy linking one level with the next.


Our analysis here can be extremely simple or enormously complex, as needed. We can’t really be in any kind of relation or interaction without some mutual modeling going on—we have to be providing each with some cues of attention and understanding, and we do this by appropriating the other’s words and gestures and returning them in some at least somewhat affirmative form. A moral practice sustains this by eliciting more of the same and making the reciprocal modeling as explicit as it need be to encourage cooperation and better performances. At the same time, the entire complex of what Marcel Jousse calls “gestes” that make up an “individual” would direct our attention across the entire social order and back into history, to the point where we must rely on anthropological hypotheses. Here is where moral practices become the kind of narration of the self in terms of life-long project of pursuing the good within a social order and tradition that has revealed a particular array of goods that MacIntyre speaks of. Someone inherits a particular way of squinting when faced with a difficult question from his father; think of all we inherit from all those our fathers imitated, those whom our fathers imitated imitated in turn, the cultural models synthesized and preserved in history and literature, which become models, and so on. Moral practices come to allude to and advance these models, to find new ways of imitating the in new contexts, and to examine them ever more closely to make them more imitable. If all Americans strove to be like George Washington, our rivalries would be much more edifying.


Thinking in terms of imitation is also very helpful in discussing the critical examination of models and traditions. However much we try, an imitation is never perfect; even if it were perfect, the very fact that it is an imitation, situated in a different time and place, would make it different—maybe even more different than a looser interpretation. There’s always an implicit criticism even in our most faithful imitations, which always have a touch of satire or parody. The moral practices of those who identify these differences and mistakes is to bring them into conformity with the original. Maybe this is an exaggeration, maybe not, but I’m going to say that all of culture, all of our thinking and talking, is concerned with this question of the conformity of imitations to their models. If we ask whether someone is a “good” teacher, athlete, president, soldier, etc., we’re asking whether his actions conform to the model we share with others of that kind of activity. The question and subsequent discussion is necessary because there will always be some deviation, and we have to decide whether the deviation represents an improvement, an unavoidable improvisation, a betrayal, a corruption, and so on. And when we do this we are working with models, which we inspect and deconstruct in order to refine the practices that are component parts of other practices, and which those who follow us will judge in turn. And if the deviations increase, we may have to decide whether the model itself has been invalidated and replaced. Our judgments are never outside of the act being judged, and even if we see a betrayal of the model, even one that needs to be punished severely, we would still try to isolate the specific elements of the practice that constituted betrayal and preserve the rest—this prevents our justified abhorrence of betrayal from becoming an attractor of mimetic feelings that would tempt us into betrayals of our own.


The model for this moral practice is the originary scene itself, which “works” and “takes” because everyone on the scene can confirm before the others that all have put forward the same sign. The originary scene would itself be the first human learning experience, as a gesture only minimally different from one aimed at appropriation comes to mean exactly the opposite. Bertolt Brecht used the concept of an “alienation effect” to describe his pedagogical goals as a dramatist: the alienation effect involved breaking the illusion of reality the mimetic representation encourages and pointing explicitly at a gesture on the scene. The originary scene must have had a moment like that where putting forth a hand could be pointed to in the sense of “this doesn’t mean what you think it does.” And then it didn’t—but it did, because everyone now thought it meant something else. Any moral practice has this dimension of showing what you are doing because what you are doing could lead to deviations to be avoided or recuperated. And wouldn’t arguments with even bitter opponents be better if we first of all clarified the models we were bringing to bear?

Powered by WordPress