GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

August 11, 2020

Successful Succession

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:36 am

This post could be seen as a “successor” to my previous post on model events insofar as it identifies the kind of event we should be looking towards as models.

In a recent post I extended an argument I made in Anthropomoprhicsand previously to the effect that the mode of succession is the most important question for assessing a social order—how is the center transferred from one occupant to the next tells us everything important we need to know about that social order. I want to further extend that argument now so as to apply it to all practices—everywhere, succession is the sign of success. Whatever you do or say is meaningful and important insofar as create the place for and when possible installs your successor. A “childless” practice is a failure.

This argument seems to me the necessary and sufficient answer to the notion of “spontaneous organization.” Spontaneous organization seems plausible because so many “causes” go into an event that we could never identify them all and weigh their various contributions to the event—so, if we can’t know all that, even when it comes to our own actions, which we can always see, in the aftermath, as being caused by lines of thinking, memories, automatic responses, and so on above and beyond our own intentions, how could anyone possible control all of those causes and bring them together to produce an event? We can see a paradox here: the more we know about everything that goes into some social process, the less it seems to us that anyone could have determined its outcome. Indeed, it follows that any attempt to control things will have the opposite effect of generating unintended and undesirable results. Better to go with the flow, and if one must act, act so as to balance things out and maintain equilibria that seem at risk.

But why wouldn’t it be just as “hubristic” to decide “unilaterally” where things are out of balance, what counts as “balance” in this case, what are the “forces” that seem out of balance, what would be the correct action to rectify rather than exacerbate the imbalance? Where does that knowledge come from, and what makes it certain enough to act on? It seems that everyone must see himself as in sufficient control of at least some “portion” of his existence—enough so that a practice can be constructed so as to produce predictable outcomes. If one believes this, one also believes that more effective control can be exercised—practices can be perfected. And perfecting a practice involves distinguishing between what is inside and what is outside the practice, which is to say what you need to be able to control and what you can’t control but don’t need to control in order to control what you can. You can’t control your dreams, but you can prevent your dreams from interfering with your management of your household. Making this kind of distinction is, in turn, key to constructing the meta-practices that enable you to maintain and extend your practices—what we could call the maintenance of subjectivity. And, who knows, maybe such maintenance acts back upon your dreams.

Every time something happens, we are faced with a choice of explanations: identify the “spontaneous process” that produced it, or look for the hierarchy of human decision making that did so. The two explanations are defined against each other—to look for spontaneity is to deliberately “debunk” any claim to autonomy and authority in a decision making process. This is the assertion of power of those within an anti-imperative declarative culture: you think that the president’s and military leadership’s decisions led to the loss of the war but it was really a critical mass of generational changes, shifts in diplomatic culture, profits driving media coverage, and so on. The purpose of the argument is to subvert clear lines of decision making and to give power to precisely all the spontaneous elements you cite—the media, the diplomats, crowds, and so on. There are lots of power bases to be found in directing decision making along these lines—you present yourself as necessary to those making executive decisions because you are clever enough to manipulate the media, popular opinion, the political scientists in universities or whomever. To stay focused on the executive arena, or the imperative order, is to identify the executive power informing all the spontaneous non-agents, all of whom are at the very least initiated by someone.

The question of succession brings a great deal of force to the executive argument. Every institution, needless to say, takes great care in propagating itself, which is to say ensuring a succession practice that will sustain and enhance the institution. Every decision made can be seen as aiming at solving the problem of succession—who to hire, who to promote, which rationalizations to use in justifying the institution’s priorities, internal policies, and so on. All these decisions lay the groundwork for one kind of potential successor to emerge as opposed to other kinds. Whoever is in charge, then, is always involved in choosing his successor—and this is even the case where there are rules of succession that completely cut the present executive out of the loop—insofar as the governor has any power at all he’s using it to manipulate the very levers of power that overtly preclude his making the decision in order to propagate his own “kind.”

I was thinking of writing a separate post on “American freedom,” but what I want to say about that can be incorporated here by way of an example. I am very favorably and generously inclined toward American freedom because what American freedom really means is a very strong prejudice in favor of an executive culture—freedom means that people in charge of something should be allowed to actually be in charge of it. This is just about the healthiest thing one can believe. Americans passionately hate the “consensus” model of decision making that seems to be popular pretty much everywhere else in the world and is systematically recommended to us as a move toward a less “white” and more “diverse” culture. I also hate the consensus model, in part because it’s so obviously a way for everyone to evade responsibility. A consensus culture would want to ride the wave of spontaneity, whereas an executive culture wants to make cuts everywhere—this is what I did, this is what he did, this is what I was charged with, this was his responsibility, I’m depending on you to do this, and so on. The “cure” for the more “idiosyncratic” and reactive elements of American freedom, then, is to restore what was once very explicitly part of it—the desire to found something, to institutionalize, to have one’s successors look back to one as a model. (The left’s current attack on the memorialization of America’s past shows that they are also aware of how important this is.)

All contemporary institutions seem dead set on producing successors who will repudiate the founding work of the institution itself. I’ve been hanging around the academy long enough to have witnessed a couple of generations of nice, gentle, open-minded, egalitarian professors who were adamantly against “racism” and “sexism” and “war” and other things harmful to living things who would, of course, have never burned an American flag, torn down a statue, boycotted a store whose owners made a “problematic” political statement, and so on—but very cheerfully and proudly paved the way for those who now encourage and, I’m sure, sometimes participate in, such activities. And they are still proud of it—with very few exceptions, these nice elderly English professors sign petitions claiming that all of American history has been a conspiracy to torment America’s black population, whether or not they realize that this would invalidate most of what they themselves taught and wrote during their careers. These are liberalism’s chickens coming home to roost, of course, because liberalism has never been anything more than the repudiation of what came before, but I’m insisting that a successor focused version of what gets called “American freedom” is crucial to the antidote. To counter liberalism, then, means to put the successor problem front and center, and this allows us to “recruit” whatever dispositions toward continuity that can still be located.

We give names to the spontaneous processes: capitalism, democracy, socialism, and, of course, liberalism. We can append verbs to these nouns: capitalism does this, the market does that, and so on. Creating abstract agencies like this means some power centers have broken free of “tyranny,” so the names can be more or less accurate and penetrating. They give names to forms of decision making practices, which to say that they are ways of addressing the succession problem in lieu of any hierarchy that articulates the totality of practices. The problem of history is replacing the shared sacrificial center that was lost with the rise of the ancient empires—I’ve focused more precisely on sacral kingship, but that’s simply the point at which the shared sacrificial center becomes fully “vested” and therefore reveals its limitations—sacrificing the king is an inadequate solution to the succession problem. Capital is a distribution of power aimed at solving the succession problem by constraining the possibilities—no ruler can rule against capital. Succession within capital is solved by having the enterprise serve as a conduit through which state decision making circulates through disciplinary practices that facilitate the further abstraction of subjects from practices that obscure them in some way from the corporate-state center. Next up in corporate leadership will be someone who can plug the disciplines into the state through the corporation. So, the names of these processes identify sites of inquiry into the succession problem.

The succession problem is the problem of all our practices. It’s the problem of immortality—how else do we live on if not through others repeating and extending our practices and words? According to Denise Schmandt-Besserat (who very decisively clarified the origin of writing in ancient accounting notation), the ancient emperors helped advance the development of phonetic writing by having declarative sentences, spoken in their “voice,” inscribed on their monuments in the earliest forms of phonetic lettering. They did this because they wanted the reader of the inscription to have to repeat, “I am _________, ruler of _______,” etc. By speaking in the king’s first person voice, you give the king’s words, and therefore the king himself, continued life. So, you want your actions and words to have successors, to be repeated in enough contexts so as to live forever, even if the words are ultimately changed and forgotten along with the name of the author. Why should the words of someone who says, essentially, “it’s all spontaneous, I’m not really doing anything and neither should you,” be remembered or carried forward? Speaking and writing are practices—you say or inscribe something so that something happens that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, so that a repetition and perfection of the practice can produce “similar” effects—you perfect your practices so others can repeat them. Whatever appears spontaneous is where the succession problem needs to be worked out—all of those unknowable causes are sites of deficient or misaligned power and authority, and the most memorable thing one can do is institute the proper forms. Anything else is delinquency, malingering and mindless subversion.

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