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.

1 Comment »

  1. […] GA Blog discusses the differentiation inherent in our cultures and its reversal. […]

    Pingback by Cantandum in Ezkhaton 11/03/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores — November 3, 2019 @ 6:36 am

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