GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 26, 2020

The Imperative Constant

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:50 am

A practice, as I have been using the term, is doing something so that something happens as a result of what you have done. The better the practice, the more it is reduced to only those means that produce these results, and the more it can be ascertained that these results can be attributed completely and only to that practice. Since a given practice relies upon other practices in order to have the necessary means available, practices also convert other practices into auxiliary practices, or practices to which the practice in question is auxiliary. What I will be more explicit about now is that part of the practice is narrating the history, outcome and purpose of the practice, all of which derive from the limitations of other practices—this part of the practice can also, of course, be perfected. Since all of human life is comprised of practices, articulated with each other in various ways, and at various stages of perfection, the theory of practice is the theory of society and culture.

The power of this theoretical approach can be demonstrated by the similarity between practices and rituals. A ritual also aims at producing a result that can be completely and reliably attributed to the shared act. The ritual arranges a gifting to the being at the center in such a way as to obey the imperative attached to the gift expected in return from the being at the center. A good ritual would be one that excludes all acts, thoughts or gestures that don’t contribute to the devotion to the center enacted by the ritual. The outcome of the ritual is, of course, uncertain—burning the choice chunk of meat to the god, or renewing one’s “membership” in the “clan” led by the antelope-god will not in itself make the upcoming hunt more successful. But if we keep in mind that rituals are collective acts, aimed at increasing mutual trust and cooperation amongst the congregants, it may very well in fact be the case that a ritual can be deemed successful. This is especially so since the tightly scripted and choreographed ritual can be replicated in other activities, further enhancing effectivity—which is in turn enhanced through legend and lore retelling of hunting expeditions, war, and other shared projects, through which the discovery and deployment of techniques become ritualized. Ritual and myth shape the “soul” so as to encourage imitation of the models considered most admirable in the community, which also is part of their “perfection.”

This similarity between ritual and practice means that we could think about post-sacrificial history, as the imperative to participate in the ongoing conversion of rituals into practices. Without a shared sacrificial center, ritual cannot survive, and without ritual, myth becomes detached stories rather than communication with the founders of the community. So, there’s no way to return to a ritual order, but this doesn’t make the Enlightenment approach to “demythification” any less delusional and destructive. If a particular ritual/myth nexus is dismantled, it has to be replaced by an equivalent—the most historically important project of demythification, Christianity, understood this. If a particular ritual/myth nexus is not replaced by a higher form of sacrality and a new integration of ritual and “theology,” it will be replaced by lower forms of centralized violence, or scapegoating. What anyone says and “believes,” and their enactment of their priorities and commitments, is an account of their relation to the center and that relation to the center must be revised not “debunked.” And that goes for any of us, as the center is always taking on new “data” that changes our relation to it, making the narratives we rely on at least partially “mythical,” indicating (as so many contemporary deperfecting practices do, on fantasies of return to a shared sacrificial center).

The conversion of ritual into practice provides us with a practice of history. What is the relationship between what anyone says and does, on the one hand, and the expected vs. the actual outcome, on the other hand? This is always a very interesting topic of conversation! What, exactly, are you trying to do here? And, assuming you manage to do it, then what? These questions can never get old. Whatever is ritualistic and mythical in your practice is that which “serves” a particular figure in your narrative (the “free” man, the “anti-racist” man/woman, etc.) but can’t be shown to actually follow from your practice. We can perfect the practice of zeroing in on this ritualistic and mythical residue by oscillating between macro and micro frames. So, for example, you want a “more equal” society and so you go to this demonstration, hold up this sign, shout that this counter-demonstrator, argue with these less doctrinaire comrades, etc. What path do you see from doing all these things to a “more equal” (in what sense, measured how?) society? What other practices would need to be constructed so as to actualize that path? How would the construction of those practices follow from the practice you are currently engaged in? How would you know those practices when you see them? These are very good questions for anyone. At every point along the path, then, you construct hypothetical practices, keep perfecting them as practices by fitting them to other practices, and the chances are very good that the “path” ends up looking very different than was originally imagined.

The conversion of ritual into practice follows the imperative of the center to construct an iterable scene around an object. On the originary scene, a gesture must have been “perfected,” at least “sufficiently.” The “outcome” of the gesture was the repetition of the gesture on the part of the others in group, as a “marker” of each member’s refraining from advancing unilaterally toward the center. All subsequent actions are to be coordinated, and any “unilateralism” is to lead to a distribution including all within the group. The gesture both says and does this. The construction of practices that identify and preempt violent centralization is identical to the construction of practices that transform the social order into reciprocally supporting practices. So, in trying to hear the imperative of the center, you convert whatever command you do hear (from your boss, your parent, your priest, your conscience, your president…) and convert it into a practice that identifies, translates and where necessary discards whatever is ritualistic and mythical in it. This is what it means to resolve the ambiguities of any command by following that command back to an earlier, and then yet earlier one—each command you seek the traces of is ordering you to bring what you do and what happens into greater conformity, both with each other and with what others do and make happen. Like on the originary scene, the aim is a sign everyone can say is “the same.”

We can call this practice of converting ritual into practice the imperative constant, which makes all practices increasingly consonant with each other. Only an imperative from the center can make the perfection of practices more than a kind of professional scruple. Even the professional scruple presupposes a social order in which such scruples can be formulated and protected, and the resulting work properly distributed and appreciated. Wanting to become the best teacher, doctor, welder, landscaper, writer, etc., I can be only makes sense if all of these skills are integrated into a community in which people can tell and value the difference between good and bad teaching, welding, and so on. And if they can’t, I can note that as a measure of social dysfunction or decline. I can’t possibly want anything other than the internal anomalies of the practice and its intersection with other practices to enter into my work on perfecting the practice. And this means I want the imperative from the center—to do nothing other than convert rituals into practices—to remain constant, for each member of society to be able to show any other member how he is doing this. From a total ritual society to a total disciplinary society—whatever we do is perfected so as to make the relation between doing it and this transformation happening more consistent and iterable.

This practice is a performative one—practices are always on display, even if in different ways and to differing extents for different “audiences.” And it is always moral, even when seemingly primarily or even completely technical. There is always resistance to the perfection of practice and relapse into more ritual practices and mythical narratives. Here is where we can locate such “mimetic structures” as desire, envy and resentment. The perfection of the practice always rubs up against existing habit, relations and hierarchies—it always threatens to shift existing relations to the center. Even under the most collaborative conditions, with a group of dedicated practitioners wholly in accord regarding the shared end, to propose some further perfection is always to appear a bit of a usurper of the center. Registering these appearances as they are distributed across the group, giving them representation, and converting them to proposals for distinctive contributions by those less central is itself a practice that one perfects.

All of the historical and conceptual material I’ve been generating and gathering—the “exemplary victim,” the “metalanguage of literacy,” more recently, the “ve/orticist app” and so on—should all be used to bringing about the conversion of rituals into practices. These are features of discourses to be surfaced and identified, with the language in which they are articulated subjected to translation practices. It is quite remarkable that it’s almost impossible to speak about politics without some victim of the other’s practices to gather around—the whys and the hows of victim selection and promotion and insertion into practices is always a productive site of attention (George Floyd died, therefore we…. What, exactly, and why?). The problem with the metapolitical concepts generated in opposition to “tyranny”—justice, freedom, equality, democracy, the republic, etc.—is that they are resistant to being converted into practices, which marks them as ritualistic and mythical.

At the same time, though, we can’t simply discard all these words and expect others to do so as well. They must be turned into transitional concepts as they are stripped of their mythical content and the victimologies through which they cohere subjected to the pressure of more perfect practices. New concepts derived from the “stack” and the data-driven algorithmically articulated reality are themselves meaningful as parts of practices that break up oralizing fantasies of community and distribute signs and discourses across practices within disciplines that can accordingly be infiltrated and their practices perfected. The exemplary victim and the metalanguage of literacy allow us to construct model scenes and narratives against which we can generate various algorithmic paths to the scenes and models constructed by the media—and transitioning to the defense of the center (the perfecting practice) and infralanguages of literacy help us to block those paths. All metalinguistic concepts are aimed at obstructing some “tyranny” and thereby indirectly indicate some possible executive action—to put it simply, what should be done is something the anti-tyranny metaconcept enjoins. Convergence upon a victim is a ritual and mythical practice, but it signifies, not a specific form “tyranny” targeting that victim, but disordered power to which the specificities of the victim are incidental. Infralinguistic centering practices follow the imperative constant to disable the victimary-metalinguistic link. “This violence against this victim means that the system is guilty of this form of tyranny which we must devote our entire being to overthrowing” always needs to be translated into “this anomaly (whether in a law enforcement, or economic, or reporting, or educational practice) indicates the need to perfect this cluster of practices.” This would be the continual conversion of ritual into practice.

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