GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

May 31, 2020

Deriving the Sample to its Source

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:11 pm

When you “signify” in any way, there are two ways of thinking about what you have done: first, you have conveyed or communicated some meaning, or content, in a package, so to speak, to be delivered to some recipient; second, you are modifying the mass of signifying material transmitted to and circulating around you from the totality of language users. The problem with the first way of thinking about it is that whatever content you believe yourself to transmitting is not something outside of language but is, rather, made up of transmitted and circulating signifying material, which references, then, other “contents,” which are themselves comprised of…. Leading us to infinite regress. The problem with the second way of thinking about the process is similar: that great mass of signifying material is signifying material because it is signifying “something,” something that is presumably not reducible to the signifying material itself. Here, again, we are led into infinite regress, as we can only track the various paths taken by signifying chains by referring to their to some extent at least extra-linguistic referents (i.e., “content”).

This antinomy is a metaphysical one, insofar as it presupposes the primacy of declarative culture, where we need to keep providing content for sentences but the content can only be more sentences. The originary hypothesis transforms this antinomy into a generative paradox by positing the ostensive sign as the first sign, so that the sacred object at the center is also the first “content,” but content only made available through the act of signification itself. So, there is indeed some “content” “outside” of any act of signification, but it is a content that is the content of that particular act of signification, under those conditions of signification, within a specific event of signification, which thereby produces that content. Since that act, event, and those conditions must be the performance of positions, rules and possibilities created by the entire history of language and humanity, the creation of that content could just as easily and accurately be described as a modification of signifying material transmitted and circulating—kind of like pulling a switch that directs a chain of signification of one path onto another.

There is “content,” then, because we can use the “same” sign pointing, or providing a kind of map enabling us to point, to the “same” thing. This is really a single problem, because the “same” sign is the same because it is pointing to the “same” object. What makes this possible is what I call a “disciplinary space,” but it would be more precise to say that this is what a disciplinary space is. But we can just as readily use Eric Gans’s terms from The Origin of Language: “linguistic presence,” which is maintained or restored by “lowering the threshold of significance.” The only really satisfying answer to the question, “what do you mean by that?,” is some version of “look at this.” The whole problem then resides in being in the same “place,” “facing” the same “direction,” undistracted by other things one might look at which might obscure “this,” and so on. And this is a problem that can only be solved within some practice, a practice constructed at least in part in order to solve it, here and now. (What “here and now” means is also determined by a disciplinary space: there can be a “here and now” stretching across the earth and the millennia—we can share a disciplinary space with the “recipient” of an ancient divine revelation.) All of our conversations are shaped by some form of the question the novice asks the expert when told to look through some specialized device of observation: “what am I looking at here?”

The implications of the paradigm-specific nature of knowledge has been studied extensively, by Gaston Bachelard, Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn and others—the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser has some interesting things to say about Bachelard’s notion of an “epistemological break” separating one paradigm from another—Kuhn’s “scientific revolution.” For a contemporary thinker who goes over this material in an informed and thorough (and accessible) way, I would recommend Hans-Jorg Rheinberger, whom I just came across myself. But my own ambition is to bring “paradigm dependency” into the realm, not only of the human sciences, but that of normal and idiosyncratic signifying activity, which is to say, social interaction. This would also bring the question into the moral and ethical fields: it would be immoral to ignore the “anomalies” that bring an established “paradigm” into “crisis,” because in doing so you would be abetting the crisis. But what this means in, say, a conversation between two people, or a political debate, must be very different than what it means in an established scientific discipline. The trick of a certain kind of progressive is to ignore these differences so as to license themselves to harangue their political enemies with what might at best be slightly more “qualified” claims from some “expert” domain. But if you ask such a progressive for the theory of social interaction and signifying activity informing such bullying, you’re very likely to draw a blank. He won’t be able to tell you what he’s doing, and what could be more important to thinking about what is “good” and what is “bad” than being able to say what you are doing?

The best way of infiltrating all discourse with some translation of paradigm dependency is to articulate all the speech forms identified in The Origin of Language, and explored in various directions in Anthropomorphics: An Originary Grammar of the Center. Any speech act, in any medium, articulates the ostensive, imperative, interrogative and declarative levels of discourse. We can borrow from Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack, and, as I have been doing already without remarking upon it, refer to the “grammatical stack”—those levels of discourse are articulated in what we could call a particular “slice” of the stack (one might say a “cross-section”) in any utterance. The “meaning” of an utterance (and, like “here and now,” what we mean by “utterance” is determined within a disciplinary space: an epic poem, even an entire tradition, can be treated as an utterance) is the way it slices the stack. And another language user or (risking confusion) “signifier” acknowledges this meaning by slicing the stack in a way that is possible only because of the previous slice. We all can tell the difference between meaningful and meaningless statements. For example, a billionaire insisting on the need for greater “equality” while ordering his sub-minimum wage illegal alien domestic worker to scrub a stain is not really making a “meaningful” statement: “hypocrisy” is the ready at hand word for this kind of meaninglessness. But what does anyone mean when they “call” for greater “equality”—where is the route from that declarative statement to a set of ostensives and imperatives that would lead to a result we could point to together and say, “yes, that’s what ‘greater equality’ looks like”? If you can’t answer that kind of question, what you say is just as meaningless as the virtue-signaling of the most transparent hypocrite. And if this doesn’t strike you as an important problem, your pretensions to being a moral actor are perfunctory, at best.

I propose approaching this by treating signifying acts or utterances as samples. “Sample” might seem like a narrowly scientific term, of dubious application when applied to humans, but the word has a richer history than that—it is really a “spin-off” of “example,” which means it carries the meaning of a “model,” or “match,” and is part of a family of Indo-European words with the root “em,” which means “to take, distribute” (from the online etymological dictionary, of course). So, when we “sample,” we’re passing around parts of the whole, not, in this case, to consume, but to use them to figure out what the whole consists of. Any use of language is a sample of language, and its relation to language as a whole is precisely what is in question. Here I will invoke, as I have done many times, Peirce’s assertion that knowledge involves determining the relation between some proportion between elements in the sample and the proportion between those same elements in the whole. If you could represent the whole you wouldn’t need samples, and there’s no doubt that with language you can never have the whole. So, when I say something, I’m presenting not only a sample of language (and myself as a sample of language users), but a(n intrinsically open) hypothesis regarding the relation between that sample and the whole (the hypothesis being that the study and iteration of my sample will enable you to generate samples that better approximate the whole than would otherwise be the case). This hypothesis is far more often than not implicit, but it’s definitely there insofar as my sample, or part, or slice, is a “response” to others (rather than the feeble “response,” we can say that my sample repairs a break in linguistic presence threatened by a previous sample, using the reparative means provided by that sample). One sample includes, via allusion, impersonation, citation and translation, others, and thereby proposes a better match between sample and whole.

What makes for a better match is that some “same” sign is now seen to be marked by difference as a consequence of a new same sign (or sample). We could say that the origin of the declarative is iterated: an ostensive is shown to be lacking, or referentless, or distributed among so many referents as to be inoperative; while a new ostensive realigns the field. This can be seen as a scientific practice—multiplying anomalies until the new paradigm can be constructed—it can also be seen as a moral and ethical practice of reparation, and an aesthetic practice of framing. The more we move away from established scientific disciplines and toward “everyday life” or, more precisely, more open-ended scenes, the more the latter aspects of the practice become the decisive ones. The “anomaly,” in moral and aesthetic terms, is the break in linguistic presence. It is a breach one steps into. Your sample has to be a sample ofthe missing layer of the stack presented by the other’s sample. This is the kind of practice I have discussed many times before: you might take the other’s declarative as an imperative, thereby revealing the contrary or inoperable imperatives implicit in it; one might take oneself to be named in some “meaningless” reference in another’s discourse, and act out that absence; one might repeat another’s declarative in a series of declaratives, each producing a word or phrase in the other’s sentence, thereby laying bare what we are expected to think here. Of course, this need not be antagonistic—one could use these kinds of practices to amplify another’s discourse, to accentuate the fullness of meaning. In fact, one is always doing a bit of both, because even the meaningless discourse must be acknowledged as enabling the breach one can now step into.

I’m always trying to introduce further gradients of differentiation and deferral into these hypothetical renderings of linguistico-moral-aesthetic practices. We can’t get to the point of writing all-purpose pedagogical scripts (but that may be an imperative from the center that can’t be unheard), but we can clarify an imperative and create a vocabulary for naming its “stations.” We keep putting forward samples with a relationship to the whole that is indeterminate and nevertheless more closely matched than another sample to be included within our own. Every sample is distinct—distinctiveness is the relation between the “elements” in the sample and the relation between those same elements within the whole. The sample is the same as itself, as “verified,” “confirmed,” or “acknowledged” by the other samples it generates. (You could say the determination that any sign or sample is the same is a “fiction,” but as opposed to what reality?) Insofar as the sample can be “authenticated,” though, this sample iterates and is therefore the “same” as a whole series or “sprawl” of samples.

So, you can always locate any sample at some point on a continuum where at one end we identify everything that makes the sample the same as lots of other samples, all that reduces it to a “stereotype”: the use of words and phrases in the same way, the reliance on grammatical constructions and rhetorical commonplaces, the deployment of familiar tropes, the reliance on the affordances of the media employed, and so on: this brings into focus the tasks of “media studies.” At the other end of the continuum, meanwhile, we identify everything that distinguishes this sample from any other, including time, place, audience and the various possible modifications of inherited means of expression. The breach is where you accentuate both, or represent an oscillation between the two, showing how accentuating one end of the continuum ends you up back at the other end—where the most insistent adherence to fixed models produces the greatest originality. The title of this post has the inappropriate “to” instead of “from” so as to accentuation the simultaneity of discovering and constructing the source of any sample. “Derive to” is a sample of mistakenness, interfering with the linearity implicit in the notion of “derivation.” Maybe a good sample, maybe not. Leaving your sample to simultaneously be an absolute novum and a complete copy is language learning as the definitive moral act—you discover what you “mean” by minimally but systematically differentiating your utterance from others. Anything we would take to be moral, above all refraining from projecting your own mimetic crises onto the background of others so we might see them as following the same imperative as us, follows from the derivation of the sample to its source.

May 23, 2020

Exchanges withe Center Over Time

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:15 pm

All discourse is with and of the center; all exchanges are of and with the center; all discourses are mediating exchanges with and through the center. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the human is the center speaking and exchanging with itself, with humans as the medium of discourse and exchange. We’re the language and money of the center. The reason this isn’t a solipsistic monologue of an autistic deity is that the exchanges take place over time, and the center of now is not the same center as the center now (nine words further along in the sentence). When we think of economic exchange, which is t say, desacralized exchange outside of the ritual center, we think of exchanges between agents located on the periphery—so, my formulations here counter that model. But even if exchanges on the periphery merely interface exchanges of the center with itself over time, that mode of exchange would still be a new interface of intra-center exchanges, and one that itself going, eventually, to be mediated by money.

Money, then, while initiated to facilitate imperative exchanges with the center through the provision of articles for group sacrifice, comes to stretch imperative exchange to its limits. With an imperative exchange, the participant can say why he is bringing this article, why now, why here, and the reason will include references to a ritual tradition which includes established forms of reciprocity between individuals, families, kin, and communities. The tendency of money is to abstract from all that and render it irrelevant. But what money doesn’t abstract from is its relation to central authority, as means of distribution and measure of stability. If someone has $200,000 in the bank, that $200,000 represents, not the amount of labor that person has performed minus what was spent purchasing the results of others’ labor, but the existence of that bank, within a world of banks and other means of registering and preserving amounts and accounts, protected by a particular mode of sovereignty guaranteeing in various ways the ability of the bank to have any or all of that $200,000 available when called for by the holder of the account. And, of course, that $200,000 also represents a certain amount of purchasing power in relation to the rest of the economy, which means today it can buy you a nice house in a good neighborhood whereas perhaps in a couple of years it will get you a decent car.

Money, then, is a tissue of threads anchored in the sovereign which, in quivering, register clusterings of power interfering with central authority, new delegations of disciplinary power more or less directly sanctioned by central authority, the moral health of the community using that money, insofar as that moral health figures into the structure of the workforce and consumption, and so on. And, not only registers, but reweaves and sometimes cuts off connections. It’s obvious that for a community to have, say, a certain number of highly skilled engineers, it must have a certain number of functional families raising children with the discipline to become trained as engineers, and some form of schooling that does the training, and a sufficiently pacified environment so that those who might become engineers are not compelled, as teenagers, to join a gang to survive, or to avenge the rape of their sister, and that to have all of these things one must have a lot of other things as well. Since all this is articulated through money, a true understanding of economics would find ways of using money to measure all this. But, for starters, we could say that the question of, say, “priming the pump,” or “printing money,” or “qualitative easing,” must ultimately be a question of whether enough (and how many will be “enough”?) people, in the “right” places, expect the central authority to see to, over the long term, the core social competencies that will produce X number of highly skilled engineers, with X being the number necessary to sustain and enhance as needed the various infrastructures needed to make everything else happen. And such expectations are going to be formed in accord with the extent to which the central authority can be seen maintaining the distinctions and differentiations, or the pedagogical relationships, that would ensure that what we mean now by “highly skilled engineer” will be commensurate with what we will mean by that phrase ten years from now. And that continuity in meaning can be “read off” of all the phenomena we see around us, in new terminological coinages, in slippages in the use of familiar terms, in new specializations that either degrade qualifications or represent genuinely new disciplinary spaces. If we know how to read it—which means that those who know to read it—and to read money flows as signals in the movements of meanings—will eventually constitute the “social spine,” if there is going to be one.

To read money as rendering the meaning of social differentiations is to read against the grain of money, the primary tendency of which is to efface them. This doesn’t necessarily mean “opposing” money (it doesn’t necessarily mean not opposing it, either), because one could introduce some measure into an order for the purposes of observation and modulation while granting it the necessary autonomy to be of use in that regard. The exchanges among non-sovereign institutions and individuals facilitated by money represent a concession of authority which is really a delegation, by the central authority. There can be good reasons for relaxing control in some areas, and maintaining a system of measurement to indicate when further relaxation might be beneficial or, on the contrary, control should be tightened. The alternative is to have spies, or plants, which is to say some kind of sensory “membrane,” in institutions granted authority, which reports back to central authority. Of course, both methods can be used simultaneously, and for those find the notion of spies or plants in “private” institutions to be disturbingly totalitarian, I would ask whether the currently mythologized figure of the “whistleblower” represents anything other than an encouragement to individuals to train themselves as potential spies and plants.

But reading against the grain of money does lead to imagining its extreme limitation, to the point of its disappearances, at least as a thought experiment. If money serves the same purpose as could be served by spies or plants or, let’s say, sensing and measuring agents directly responsible to central authority, then we could formulate a kind of “equation”: the more that money is minimalized, the more pervasive the sovereign sensorium must be. However “appified” all this sensing and measuring might be, there will always be authorized individuals making decisions. (One of the comical aspects of the systematic and often bizarre censorship exercised by social media corporations like Google, Twitter and Facebook is the fact that, for all the sophistication and complexity of the algorithmic-driven data collection and sorting, in the end the specific decision to suspend this or that account is made by some neurotic, hyper-sensitive, peer pressured, semi-educated 20-something.)  In this case, money would be measuring the fluctuations of the integration and isolation of disciplinary spaces within institutions: the more the social order is constituted by skunkworking throughout its institutions, the more meaningful money would be, and the better indicator of social health over time; the more skunkworkers are reduced to the condition of “whistleblowers” (with greater or lesser effect), the less meaningful money will be. Things could get more complex—fake whistleblowers can try to undermine genuine skunkworks, for example, in the interest of clusterings of power subverted by effective work—but these developments would also be fluctuations of the integration/isolation of disciplinary spaces. At the extreme, if we could imagine achieving “total skunkworking,” it’s hard to see why there would be any need for money at all—money, as a map, would have become so meaningful as to become absorbed into a shared attunement to the “territory.”

Friedrich Hayek’s argument was that all of the tacit knowledge embedded in the practices of all the distributed agents in the exchange order would be lost if those practices were to be reduced to the direct imperatives of a central authority. For Mises, the problem of there being no money is that price signals are necessary to mediate to allocation of resources. But there seem to be exceptions: emergency situations where mobilization proceeds in accord with motivation, competence and courage, and where it’s easy to see who’s a slacker or malingerer. Maybe just like hard cases make bad law, emergency situations make bad social science. But the equivalent of a permanent emergency would be a project engaging the energies of the entire society. The tweeter “scientism” makes a good case that the purpose of liberalism is to prevent the coalescence of such a project—the last such project was the organization of the social order to serve and glorify God, and liberalism got its start by muddying up that project. It’s hard to imagine anything as comprehensive as that replacing liberalism, but what can replace liberalism is a social order of “seed projects,” proposals seeking support for space exploration, medical research, communications and infrastructural developments, and even such leftist fetishes as cleaner energy—the sovereign responsibility would be to order and prioritize amongst such projects, to devote long-term research allocation to them, and to assign to the others the organization of educational and other institutions the task for preparing the people to participate. The articulation of large scale planning and distributed tacit know-how would then take care of itself.

Exchanges with the center over time, then, involve disciplinary spaces transforming disciplines and doing so by recognizing and creating other disciplinary spaces. Any creation of a new line of attention confers, however indirectly and imperceptibly, meaning upon money by enhancing the sensorium of the (possible) central authority. One could always, in principle, state explicitly the articulation of distributed scenes represented by a particular use of money: $200 for this television set represents a certain number of people working a certain number of hours upon a certain kind of machinery, with the product of that labor then being transported in a certain way of a certain distance, and so on. Leftist activists used to excel at such visualizations of the “global factory,” and it must be much easier to do today. The idea is that the more you state it and visualize it, the easier it becomes to consider changing it. This is obviously true. If you look at one link of the supply chain, e.g., the working conditions in some factory in China, you can say: “this is unacceptable. These conditions must change.” You can then specify the changes you would make and put a dollar amount on that. Maybe improving the working conditions or moving the factory out of China would make the TV set cost $220. This, in turn would distribute outlays of money all along the line. The purpose is to integrate production and consumption decisions into a moral framework. As in so many other cases, we can say to the leftist activist, first, “what kind of central authority do you imagine being able to approach the supply chain in the kind of systematic way necessary to make this approach coherent?”; and, then, “once you have imagined such a central authority, what makes you imagine it will do the things you want it to do”? The question applies equally to all of us, of course, but we will be better equipped to aid in the installation of such a central authority if we are exclusively focused on contributing to a pedagogical order in which disciplinary spaces as the sensorium of central authority are a matter of course.

We can set the problem, then, of translating a particular monetary exchange into the measure of the distance between the actual alignment of disciplines and a possible alignment characterized by a further increment of pedagogical relations, or fractal hierarchies made more explicit. As always, we work with a specific slice of the stack, interfacially, “app”ially. And pataphysically, or through what we could call the imperative imagination—so, for example, paying 20% more for your TV set means some worker in China will have free time to study neoabsolutist theory—so, get to it! This can be, at one and the same time, a mockery of activist hysteria and an invitation to a discussion of social priorities, and the assumptions we make about authority when we posit them. You don’t claim to represent the totality, just to be an interface between the totality (or Cloud) and the specific situation (the desire of some user). You want the terms of exchange set up by a new occupant of the center (even if it’s the same occupant at a later time) to be consistent with previous terms. You want money to represent the “stock” of skilled engineers, intact families, settled populations, functional educational institutions, and so on, rather than the power grabbing or desperation of someone close enough to the center to inflate it like a bubble.

May 13, 2020


Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:03 am

In a very interesting (and short) book, Urban Planning for Murder: Murder Fact Event, Aristides Antonas argues that the governing logic of the city is to render murder anonymous, and therefore neutral and innocuous. The city takes the “eventness” out of murder. This is a way of identifying the city, which we can in turn identify with civilization, as the transcendence of the vendetta and the tribalism informing it. Under the terms of the vendetta, a murder is an event that puts everyone on high alert and accentuates all social differences; in the city the victim is, literally, a number, filed away in an archive, processed through the judicial bureaucracy which similarly anonymizes the murder. But Antonas goes on to add another ingredient to the formula of the city—the injustice that is incommensurable with the justice system because it is committed by one outside of that system, against the system itself. This injustice, committed by the sovereign charged with ensuring justice, produces (I am following up on Antonas here) the exemplary victim, the memory of whom will both undergird and intimate the limits of the justice system.

Let’s approach the city and civilization from another angle. In The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias traces the process of civilization through the gradual separation of the scene of slaughter from the scene of consumption. At the most primitive stage, the animal is killed, the meal prepared, and then eaten, in succession, in the same place—the slaughter-house and dining hall are one. Then, the slaughter is carried out elsewhere, and the food brought in and prepared and consumed in a single place. Then the preparation is set apart from the consumption, so in the end those eating can be completely oblivious to the provenance of their meal. As animal rights activists try through desperate stunts to remind us, this allows us to remain blissfully unaware of the systematic brutalities which eventually land the food on our tables. Labor activists make the related point regarding, e.g., the children digging in tungsten mines in Africa so that we can tweet about trans rights on our cellphones. Here, events are made invisible, but if someone were to propose a remedy to such situations, those remedies would repeat the same civilizing process of eliminating anything event-like along the supply chain through regulations, inspectors, lawsuits, NGOs and so on. In other words, another layer of delegation and distancing would be introduced.

These processes of civilization in turn produce a strong desire to see what we don’t really want to see. The equivalent of snuff films are meant to attract our attention to the atrocities underlying our peaceful consumption—this kind of porn goes back a long way, as any reader of Dickens knows. Elias traces “sentimentalism” to this process of separation and seclusion: those who slaughter what they then cook and eat, right then and there, aren’t going to be sentimental about animals, or hunting, or the bucolic life: there’s no other scene on which to project the resolution to the resentments felt on the scene one occupies. Genres like the idyll and the pastoral are the products of urbanization no less than modern genres like film noir and the horror film. Film noir reconstructs and sensationalizes the murder events neutralized through insurance claims, police procedure, property disputes and other urban non-events. The horror film tries to simulate the revenge of repressed nature, from which the viewer is of course at a safe distance. This is fundamentally no different than the pastoral representing the shepherd as a paragon of the virtues forgotten by the city-dweller. “Nature” is a product of the “artificial” city.

The exemplary victim of civilization is not suited for representation within these genres, which is tantamount to saying that the unrepresentability of the exemplary victim generates these supplementary genres. Think about the victims of precisely the liberal democratic states, violating precisely their founding liberal principles, over the past few years—these would be those dissident right figures marked as “racist” so as to bring the entire machinery of state, economic and cultural institutions down upon them, rendering them as close to “non-persons” as it’s possible to be in an order that records everything. One can want to see these individuals obtain relief and even justice, but insofar as they are suing, appealing, having their cases work their ways through the courts or the adjudication processes of Facebook, Twitter or Chase Manhattan, they are not the kinds of victims who “void” the claim of the system to avoid eventness. Nor would this change if one of these victims went out in a terrorist blaze of glory, which would likewise confirm by triggering the justice system. Pastoral, noirish and horror representations would still be possible.

The exemplary victim is the one whose path we could follow as a means of salvation while always falling infinitely short of the example. To speak of this civil exposure of the terms of civility we need the language of money, which is as intrinsic to the city and civilization as writing and justice. We have to think of these different power interfaces together. A good starting point for doing so is Devin Singh’s Divine Currency, which examines the ways in which concepts of currency, coinage and debt are constitutive of early, formative Christian thought. Singh’s work is part of an emergent disciplinary space inquiring into the relations between the monetary concepts pervasive in Christianity in a way that doesn’t reduce them to metaphors—books like Michael Hudson’s …and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year, among others that will no doubt come up in future discussions are example of texts that take seriously, to take just one example, the economic roots and implications of a concept like “redemption.” I will preface this preliminary discussion by saying that the economic dimension of the fundamental concepts of Christianity neither “discredits” Christianity nor reduces it to an ancient world debt-forgiveness activist movement—no more than does the political dimension of calling God a “king” giving “laws” and “ruling” the world discredit Christianity and other monotheisms reliant on such concepts. Quite to the contrary—the implication of such an inquiry is that Christianity, if it hopes to be powerful in any sense, will have to recover its relation to the totality of human life, eternal and temporal.

So, God is a benevolent administrator of the world economy, and humans are created in His image just like a coin is stamped with the image of the worldly emperor; Christ is the unique divine image that is then copied onto all the human “coins.” Christ is also the “ransom” paid to Satan, who holds humanity in debt due to original sin. (Singh goes into some detail regarding the account one early theologian provides of the rather dubious “negotiations” God must engage in to manage this.) David Graeber speaks contemptuously about this language of debt peonage, seeing it as a justification of power, but one can also turn that around and see Christianity as a call for the liberation of humanity from debt enslavement, a recurring problem in both the ancient and modern worlds. Singh is interested in the way this theologico-monetary discourse provided the ideological resources for early modern (and late modern, for that matter) defenses of the “free market,” while Graeber, understandably, finds the whole notion of an unpayable debt obscene. But humans have always acknowledged a debt to the center—otherwise, what were all those sacrifices about? Exchanges with the center are intrinsically asymmetrical. Why couldn’t that asymmetry intensify to the point where the debt to the center becomes incommensurable not only to all available resources, but to all imaginable discourses?

This would always have been thought of in “economistic” terms: if the local deity guarantees a good hunt, or sufficient rainfall, he is providing a good, and holding up his end of the bargain. This kind of exchange is inherently limited, though—if your god allows you to bring down a buffalo, there’s nothing more you can give him than a piece of that buffalo. Once the God-Emperor ensures the yearly flowing of the life-giving river, though, it gets harder to determine what would count as an acceptable gift in return. Money is both continuous and discontinuous with this history of exchanges with the center that constitutes humanity. Money, in its universal exchangeability, provides a language for speaking of “infinite” indebtedness, and money is introduced as a means of exercising power when the asymmetry of center and periphery is so immense as to require indirect means of control and regulation. It then becomes imaginable for the exemplary victim of the state’s crime against its own justice system to become a “means of payment” for an infinite debt payable, now, not to the king, but to the God of Whom the king can only be a minted image.

It is very helpful to keep in mind the economic resonance of central theological words like “redemption” and “salvation.” The sacred can only be a way of representing our sociality, and from where other than our institutional forms could we derive the vocabulary for speaking of the sacred? A different language of the sacred would require a different form of sociality, and vice versa. The alternative to an infinite debt to the center is not a worldly or divine communism, but a donation to the center that is simultaneously one’s “income.” From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs? Communism never even claimed to get anywhere near that point, so maybe it’s not a communist mode of exchange after all. Moreover, what I think is the common interpretation of that much older than Marx slogan, that it implies altruistic self-sacrifice of the “able” to the “needy,” misses the obvious point that the able also have their needs, which might be quite substantial, and must also be met, if they are to “give” according to abilities sourced by the meeting of those needs (not to mention that the needy must also have abilities, even if more meager, to be cultivated). Your needs are also what you need in order to exhibit, refine, maintain and transmit to others your abilities. Such a mode of distribution makes no sense in terms of spontaneity and autonomy, but only in terms of an exchange with the center, mediated through micro and macro pedagogical interactions.

A new form of “urbanomics,” meanwhile, would involve surfacing the economic underpinnings of our moral and ethical discussions, and also the way all the distinctions of civilization—natural/social, natural/artificial, private/public, and so on—have infiltrated the furthest reaches of our language. In place of attempts to find exemplary victims to martyrize, the crimes against the system of justice we need to reveal in our practices are needs unnecessarily unmet and abilities left unexercised. The civilized question is always some version of, “what could we be doing other than this”? Where is there a mimetic blockage that could be converted into a new medium or interface that would make such a blockage unthinkable? As always, this is more a question of ways of being in language and therefore in institutions, rather than a “program.” We can tell, and can get better at telling, when another wants to be too much “like” us, or we find ourselves wanting to be too much “like” them, such that the space between us is in danger of being foreclosed because we would then both have to be in the same space. It is in such occasions where the metalinguistic concepts of the disciplines—all those mentioned above, plus “rights,” ‘equality,” “justice,” “reason,” and much more get leveraged to ideologize the confrontation and make it intractable. Your donation to the center is the representation of an other to which we can both contribute something, the creation of new needs ad abilities.

One more element of the city is worth mentioning: the grid, or replicable patterns of infrastructure, architecture and information transmission. The grid is the material manifestation of the abstraction exercised through money and the justice system. The grid enforces the distribution of human activities along the lines of the distinctions mentioned above, but also divisions like residential and business, financial and manufacturing, city and suburb—which replicate those other distinctions. The killings on which each of us depend are occluded in the other districts. Should we see the beasts being slaughtered for the benefit of what seems to us a more benign secondary or tertiary activity? Does the continuation of civilization depend on not seeing how the sausage is made, or upon having it laid out for us? In the former case, this ongoing process of deferral and distantiation is to be continued—after all, each point along the way some serious conflict was deferred through some distancing and segregating mechanism until we got to the point that we can start to defend against as yet unimagined dangers—but maybe at the expense of seeing potentially “dangerous” (because conflict-generating) dangers right in front of us. In the latter case we want design for transparency, with windows from within each district opening up onto the other districts. Lots of glass and mirrors, the functional parts of buildings and streets (pipes, wires, poles, etc.) made visible and interesting, information displays like the financial ticker for all kinds of activities, explicit recognition of our enhanced visibility and audibility, and therefore more awareness of the performative nature of our activities. If hiding information becomes more difficult, for corporations, institutions and individuals, then secrecy and privacy will have to be replaced by the shaping of the information we can’t help but give off: data is infinite but its processing in real time is finite and we can control the patterns that are going to be read off of us and the ones we read off of others. This all comes back to making our practices explicitly pedagogical, and instances of originary satire.

May 4, 2020


Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:03 am

One broadly, maybe even universally held agreement among “postliberals” is that, contra to liberalism, a properly ordered polity would have a unified project that would command unanimous consent, even enthusiasm. Society should be a team, not a collection of individuals. Indeed, even liberalism itself does not escape this compulsion, even if it gets obeyed indirectly, through imperatives like spreading equality and liberty. If the highest human aspiration to “realize every individual’s potential,” wouldn’t that have to be a cooperative endeavor as well? As with much else in postliberalism, the problem is to make explicit obvious truths that liberalism obscures. In a sacral order, the community is established so as to serve the sacred being; the problem of social organization around a shared project only emerges in post-sacral orders. But if the question becomes, “to what should we, as a society, aspire,” we already border on the ridiculous—it sounds like we’re filling a slot in a questionnaire, rather than pursuing something organically grounded in our practices and institutions.

My starting point here is the deferral of appropriation on the originary scene. Deferral on the face of it is a “negative” act—something we don’t do. But it’s immediately positive and creative as well: we see and hear something new as a result of our deferral—the carcass we were about to fight over becomes a god, transforming us into a community, initiating morality, ritual and aesthetics. Anyway that we find to talk about creation or invention will involve some permutation of this deferral: it will, that is, involve something like “standing back and observing the whole,” or “identifying an emergent pattern,” or some other intellectual act predicated upon suspending some immediate ambition and “reconfiguring” the desire that led us to it. If we want to pursue this in a more deliberate way, we would pay much more attention to ourselves as mimetic beings: every act that we carry out, indeed, every “sub-act,” or gesture, is modeled on some other’s practice. If we want to be original, we must first divest ourselves of our presumptions of originality.

Imitation is really a fascinating business. No one has thought this through as radically as Marcel Jousse, whose anthropology of “mimism” would have us look steadfastly at the mimetic construction of everything we do. In other words, it’s not as if we imitate for a while until we’re mature, and then we’re “ourselves” and we can think more conventionally in terms of individuals as self-contained, coherent psychological and moral beings. But at the same time, imitation is never “perfect,” since any act or gesture is embedded in a particular scene, and its imitation will take place on another scene, giving it a different set of meanings, even if the act or gesture itself, from a purely physical perspective (maybe we could prove it through a video recording) is identical. There could never be an end to the excavation of our acts—and desires, thoughts, resentments, judgments, etc.—in layers of mimetic articulation. But we don’t have to become full-time archaeologists of ourselves as mimetic constructs. We just have to learn how to notice the one thing Jousse neglects—the ways our mimisms intersect with their progenitors and derivatives in such a way as to cancel themselves. In other words, at a certain point, imitation becomes impossible because everyone doing the same thing makes it impossible for anyone to do that thing anymore. The “imagination” entails looking at a particular mimism on a particular scene and expanding that scene to the point of “mimic” self-cancellation. And any creative or original act will be one that modifies that scene so that the “mimism” can convert itself in such a way that imitative “drift” provides for the flourishing of the mimism. At least for a while.

This still seems rather centrifugal, though—so far, the discussion is too individualized. The problem is that there isn’t yet a coherent order that allows us to think in terms consistently centered mimisms. That’s what our thinking has to anticipate and prepare for. With the breakdown of the sacral order, every individual can become a center, and this is what makes mimeticism uniquely uncontrolled and destructive in the modern world. The privileged position is to attract scapegoat level attention to oneself so as to leverage that scapegoat level attention into an immunity to persecution, thereby liberating and capitalizing on one’s desires. Imagination under liberal capitalism, then, involves a constant oscillation between these two poles, which means the ongoing depletion of the moral “capital” inherited from Christianity making the oscillation possible in the first place.

The crucified Jesus has operated so powerfully as a model through these developments as to become invisible—the “atheists,” whose entire cultural position is predicated upon their potential persecution by ignorant believers, are as steeped in Christian culture and morality as anyone else. It’s easy enough to see, given the iconography of Christianity, why the sacrifice of Jesus would become a template for seeing in a new way the treatment of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. But Jesus was not scapegoated for being powerless; quite to the contrary, the fear was that he was powerful enough to overturn all of humanity’s teachings regarding the divine and the moral order. The most important argument for mimetic theorists who wish to challenge liberalism to make, in fact, is that nothing in the condition of the powerless triggers scapegoating tendencies; quite to the contrary, it is always those who have or are believed to have “too much” power who are scapegoated. Even when we can observe instances of scapegoating targeting objectively powerless groups, it will always be because some kind of power is being attributed to that group, or exemplary members of it. They are taken to represent some hidden, and therefore all the more dangerous power. In that case, resistance to scapegoating is defense of the social center; indeed, even if one’s concern with the marginalized, the case to make is that only confusion regarding the articulation and exercise of power at the center makes it possible to project sinister and occult powers onto the marginalized (or, for that matter, to force some of the powerful to operate through the sponsorship of marginalized agencies).

The defense of the center provides the key to the articulation of mimetics and therefore desire under desacralized conditions. To defend the center is to anticipate opposition to, subversions of, even indifference to, the center. The way to anticipate anti-centrism is through the study of mimisms in all of their forms, from the tiniest twitch to the grandest project; and, not just the study of, but the reconstruction of mimisms by teaching and learning how to anticipate the self-cancelings of those mimisms, now as these self-cancelings pertain to the participation in the center. It is astonishing that, as far as I know, in spite of the basic assumption of mimetic theory that we learn through imitation, none of the major mimetic theorists—not Girard, not Gans—has paid the slightest attention to pedagogy (either as a limited practice in educational institutions or a broader social modality). But that is where the answer must lie: if the problem is that we blindly enter into conflicts with models we refuse to acknowledge are models, then treat every situation as one in which someone learns from and someone teaches someone else. Even if we disagree about who is learning from whom at a given point, we can at least agree about the general “settings” of the encounter, and give each other the opportunity to learn and teach in turn—we can therefore work towards clarifying rather than obfuscating our relations. On desacralized terrain, the replacement of the archaic formal hierarchies—explicit distinctions in rank—must be the more “fractal” hierarchies of pedagogical relations. In fact, those formal hierarchies were always, at bottom, pedagogical relations as well, most obviously in perhaps the most fundamental—the parental relation, and the initiation of the young into the community.

Every social encounter is a pedagogical relation and is to be made more overtly so. This doesn’t mean we should become irritating didacts—relations can be made overt through an accentuated gesture as much as through words. The social order as pedagogical order implies a significant moral transformation: in every encounter, each one of us must either submit to the authority of the other or step forward and assert authority in setting the terms of the encounter and revealing its pedagogical dimension. We are all doing this already—as soon as you speak, you monopolize the field, however small, and on what authority do you dare to do that? But actually describing our social interactions in these terms would be impossible under liberalism, because acknowledging pervasive, systematic hierarchy on the micro-level leads us to look for more stable and formalized forms on the macro level. Now, to assert pedagogical authority is to invite scapegoating, but not in order to exploit the tendency while backed by broader social prohibitions; rather, it is to elicit, on the model of political-pedagogical engagement I examined a couple of posts ago, in order to study in their self-canceling logic, the “mimic” structures that must be made productive.

So, to return to my starting question—to what shall we aspire?—which is prompted by the various “prometheanisms” and “faustianisms” which have become mimetically constructive on the postliberal right, with an accompanying futurist aesthetic, a focus on space travel, and so on. The most fundamental aspiration is to render the imagination productive. Work toward the abolition of resentment toward those who try to earn pedagogical authority and accountability, and thereby help those aspirants earn it by participating in the conversion of mimisms: if we look closely at anything anyone wants, we can see that it will interfere with and be interfered with by what others want, and out of this prospectively antagonistic modeling what everyone wants can be transformed. Authority will be asserted in the process, because, unless we collapse back into a liberal frame, we have to acknowledge that there must be a component of “this is what you shouldwant” in any genuine pedagogy. But it’s only pedagogy if the “should” is derived from an extended display of the desire to be transfigured in question.

This still seems very formal, and at a certain point one wants “content.” What shouldwe want, then—to conquer space? Terraform the earth itself? Make the depths of the ocean a new home? Eliminate disease? Liberate the human body from its own limitations? Abolish death? Maybe any and all of these—they’re not incompatible with each other, after all. And if there are going to be “factions” of the postliberal right, these would be good ways of self-distinguishing from others—these would be good arguments to have (they would provide startling and encouraging introductions to “normies” discovering these new political arenas), and would incidentally serve as an ongoing revelation of the squalidness of liberalism. Substantiating any of these aspirations, though, would entail turning all of us into the kind of people who could enthusiastically and competently contribute to such projects and set aside all desires that would interfere with doing so—and that more fundamental project is what I just referred to as making the imagination productive.

But maybe we can take this a little further. One implication of the “originary grammar” I have developed but have not yet explored very deeply is that we receive, quite literally, imperatives from objects. On the originary scene, the first humans were told something like “stop!”—strictly speaking, this is not yet an imperative, which emerges later, but that distinction is not important now. What matters is that the first compelling “word” we “hear” is from an object. In that case, we can learn how to “listen” to objects, to heed their imperatives. An act of deferral lets some object be—that act of deferral is iterated each time I “stop and look” or “inquire” rather than consume an object, or ignore it, or put it to some direct use. The object itself “catches my eye” and “tells” me to “hold on a minute.” So, all our inquiries, whether of the universe or the atom, are solicitations of imperatives from objects (even if the notion of “objects” becomes inadequate here). Those imperatives come through the very instruments we use to perceive, sense and measure phenomena (as Benjamin Bratton has pointed out, to “sense” is already to “measure”). The scientist wants to continually refine those instruments so as to “hear” more from the things, but this also means we want to further refine ourselves so as to build more sensitive instruments, and “build” people who can build and, first of all, want, more refined instruments—which means building institutions that can house such relations between people and instruments. So, all the things in the world along with us and our instruments are one. We want more of the world and more of the universe because it keeps telling us to do things we could never have imagined otherwise but we can now see allow us to let in more of the world and less of the delusory desires and resentments that keep the world out because they compel us to demand our “part” of it. What all the things of the universe will tell we cannot know until the refined instruments and those capable of using them do the necessary recording, but we can think in terms of making ourselves “part,” rather than demand our part—that is, we can look for ways to participate in the unfolding of our relation to everything else.


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