GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

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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