Category Archives: GA

The Ends of Man

The ends of humans lie in their origins: representation as the deferral of violence. Teleology and morality are fully implicit in the originary structure. The deferral of violence through representation is what we are “meant” to do. The implications require some unfolding, though. First of all, we are not talking about just any violence—rather, we have in mind the specifically mimetic violence that intensifies desire to the point where each mimics the other’s destructiveness to the point of annihilation. This is the specifically human violence that infests all institutions, which are the very institutions created so as to defer it. Second, violence can only ever be deferred; there is no fantasy here of discovering a formula to eliminate the possibility of violence once and for all. We are always and forever mimetic beings, and deferring violence is what we will always be doing. Third, violence is deferred through representation: a representation of, simultaneously, the symmetrical positioning tending toward violence, the reciprocal awareness of that tendency (I see what you’re doing and can thereby realize I’m doing the same), and a kind of cessation before taking the next step toward the collapse of the differentiation entailed by the mimetic crisis. The aborted gesture of appropriation is the model for all representation: the indication that one progressed toward appropriation; the indication that one sees everyone else has as well; and the indication that one has ceased to progress, one has stepped down, and one is showing others this and modeling for others the way to show it to other others. All of this comes well before there can be anything like rules, agreements, promises, moral codes, laws and so on—all of which are, in fact, constructed on this foundation of deferral. Finally, there is the central object, which has precipitated the rush toward the center, and is now “credited” with effecting the “stand down.” The center is the model for all that we will henceforth do: it has made peace and created community (such words are anachronistic but unavoidable) and is therefore the fount of wisdom, knowledge and power. Our telos is to desist from mimetically and rivalrously imitating our fellows by imitating the center.

This does not mean that we live constantly in fear that the least unwonted or potentially aggressive movement will be taken as hostile, or in constant suspicion that such movements by others will restart the contagion—although it is possible that much of the social life of very early humanity was consumed in such fears and suspicions. Once the initial catastrophe has been averted a sign, which is to say a kind of “method” is in place for preventing subsequent conflicts from getting to that point. The sign/gesture can be issued before anyone moves towards the object; it can be issued in the process of dismembering and consuming the meal; it can be issued once again afterward, to ensure and “certify” that all has gone as it should, that the benefits of the central being have been conferred once again. A kind of mastery is acquired over the situation, and once this happens, that same practice can be introduced into other situations, other, less dire conflicts. Eventually, if the possibility of conflict is pushed sufficiently far, signs and gestures can be used to explore new modes of cooperation—once the ability to direct and follow another’s attention has been formed, all kinds of new uses can be found for it. Such uses are never simply “useful”—the new modes of cooperation and the ends to which they are directed themselves become signs of deferral, activities that can be referred to and remembered as gifts of the central being and models of action to preserve and aspire to. Finally, we can take ourselves as sites of potential violence (including self-violence) by identifying inclinations towards envy and resentment and work on attaining self-mastery, quelling rebellions of our desiring selves, never quite satisfied by whatever recognition of our own centrality we receive.

The more you look at something, the more you notice things and the more interesting it becomes. This is especially the case if you are looking at something that and because others are looking at it (but this is the case for everything we look at) and this act of observation and engagement is formative. The thing you are looking at is shaping you in some way—how? What does it want? This is an endlessly interesting question, and it gets more interesting the more prolonged the attention you are capable of, and the more you are able to “factor” others’ actual or potential, past, present or future attention into your own (but that is really what makes prolonged attention possible). It is also the work of deferral, as what the center has to say always has to do with the detecting and diverting the various forms of mimetic violence. And the forms of mimetic violence themselves multiply and in some ways are strengthened as signs and institutions are fortified and attention is prolonged: each new social structure relies upon a new increment of shared deferral and is therefore vulnerable to refusals of deferral; and the more we can think (i.e., prolong attention toward the center, oscillate between different centers) the subtler and more tenacious forms of refusal we become capable of. Our inquiries (organizations of attention) are attempts to distinguish, even in our own thinking, between refusals of deferral and the introduction of new grades of deferral. All of this is devotion to the center.

The forms of symmetrical desire likewise become more complex and mediated, and so must our gestural and postural positioning. We give signs, but more and more become signs, all of us, in all of our appearances. We look to the center to guide us in becoming centers ourselves. People are looking at us all the time, in casual and highly personalized ways, in formal and informal settings, in mass and individualized forms, from positions of inferiority and superiority. We elicit envy and generate resentment, or we calm and de-escalate; we make ourselves contemptible or model modes of being for others; we fill up a space or make room for others. In so doing, we either refuse or enact models of deferral derived from the center—we demonstrate that the central being is just there for the plucking, first come, first served, or we show how resentful convergence can be converted into a new way of sharing space and being. This doesn’t mean always being nice, considerate, much less pacifist—sometimes evil needs to be driven out, sometimes that’s what modeling the center entails. Those who refuse deferral, even if through their own failure rather than ill will, model their own behavior on normative and admirable forms of action, using it for camouflage, probing for weaknesses—the logic of mimesis is such that sometimes these behaviors must be modeled in turn, and people must be given what they are “asking for.”

How do we, how can we, know that these are the ends of man? Why isn’t this some arbitrary construct, a form of “belief” that is more or less well supported by “reasons,” “proofs,” “logic,” etc.? In this case, we know it from our language. The languages of despair, of rage, of hope and love all have mimetic desire and the desire to control it inscribed within them. “I can’t go on any more”—this confession of a lack of inner strength is made for others even (or especially) if it is a suicide note, and the person making it asserts himself as a center that has gone unrecognized, unjustly unrecognized; or, perhaps, it is the discourse of someone who has been made too central, burdened with expectations of being able to sustain others that can no longer be met—one’s centrality to oneself is misaligned with one’s centrality to others. “How could you do this to me!”—here, another’s centrality is asserted as both false and all too real: the speaker has relied on the other, which is to say has organized the elements of a life around her, and that other has now rent that fabric, leaving desires, resentments, memories, signs, uncentered—and nothing is more terrifying than being bereft of a center. All utterances, actions, all signs, can ultimately be made sense of in this way, as creating, uncreating, asserting, denying some form of centrality, and can ultimately really only be made sense of in this way. Everything we engage in our lives defers violence in some way, however distantly, and when something we engage no longer offers itself up for engagement, some new form of deferral must be created. This is a highly tentative and dangerous condition, for individuals as well as groups. One of the biggest mistakes any one in a position of responsibility can make is to remove, weaken or destroy one center without having at least the beginnings of a new center ready to replace it.

All of the moral vocabulary and grammar we need is contained within the deferral of violence through representation. What, exactly, is the center in a particular case—what is the issue, the thing we are talking about, the model of action we draw from the space on which we appear? What is involved in giving ourselves over to it, shaping ourselves as centers in order to model it? What are our desires for it and resentments towards it? What derogates and distracts us from the center? The answers will often not be obvious, although it’s certainly immoral to deny anyone the means of constructing their forms of deferral. All of our ends are bound up in discerning the imperatives of the center, knowing it, shaping ourselves in accord with it. You could deny this, but in what language would you do so? Language that asserts a general centerlessness?—but if you say there are nothing but “processes” without purpose, why do you have to say this? (How can you say it to another, and assume the possibility of him understanding?) Why do you have to deny what you deny? Because others are stupider and less “scientific” than you—but an interest in things precedes a specifically scientific interest and where does that come from? Do you put forth yourself as the only real center? But all of the language in which you do so, your very assumption that others can make the slightest sense of your assertion, precede your assertion—and subvert it. If you already have some name for the center, like, most obviously, “God,” then wherein does the language you use discussing and addressing the center diverge, in essentials, from the grammar of the center presented here? If you proclaim the meaningless of existence, you proclaim in language which presupposes and even intensifies the very meaning you find lacking. We are always pursuing and enacting the meanings of the words we use (and we must use words), even in expressions of resentment: what is the meaning of “home,” of “love,” of “work,” and so on—or of “God.” We are to inhabit these meanings more fully by finding in them an incline toward the center.

Morality and Reference

An always accessible starting place for disclosing imperatives from the center is whatever you happen to be looking at, talking about, or thinking about at the moment. If you are looking at something, your attention is bringing some feature of the foreground into focus against some background; if you’re speaking, your sentences have referents, however abstract they might be. The remotest ancestor of either is the object on the originary scene, which came into view as an object because it was desired, because the group refrained from appropriating it, and because they all indicated to each other that they were doing so. Even a casual glance at something or a trivial reference is marked by the history of deferral and discipline initiated on the originary scene. Let’s stay focused on the intrinsically public use of language: any time you say something about something, you bring to attention some feature, element, use or context of that thing that had not been noticed previously. Even if all you do is completely agree with what someone else just said you are adding to the “interestingness” of the object in question, which means you are consolidating its centrality.

I want originary thinking to be a form of moral reasoning, one presupposing nothing but center, origin and deferral, without reliance on any particular creed of tradition of thought—or, more precisely, beyond such reliance, at the point where you can no longer rely on the “belief system” because it doesn’t apply in an unequivocal way in the case before you. One still solicits the intellectual resources of the traditions enabling one to think, but in a way none of those traditions would completely authorize. It is in such margins that moral reflection takes place. To practice such reflection means being able to start anywhere, including, as I just suggested, whatever you happen to be talking or thinking about right now, or whatever you find yourself gazing at. Referring to something implicates one in an attentional space: you’re adding to the attentional “load” of something other have been, are, or might be talking about. This means you’ve set up something that elicits desire and restraint—there’s something someone might want to do with or to whatever you’re referring to but there’s also something holding us back from doing so, at least enough for us to talk about it.

So, whatever it is you’d like to talk about, you can begin thinking by asking why you want to talk about it. The first response likely to come to mind, for most of us most of the time, will be something like: it’s important! People need to see the truth! These responses might be accurate, but less accurate than “other people are looking at something else,” or “other people are looking at this thing in a different way” and “I want to provide a new look.” You may be right, they may be wrong, you may be substantive and they may be trivial, but you are both facing the same center, insofar as you are in some way referring to the same thing. The most fundamentally moral act, I am assuming, is to sustain linguistic presence by keeping that shared center in view. That doesn’t mean you are obliged to keep a useless and banal conversation going—it might mean startling the other participants in the conversation with something provocative or vulgar; it might mean walking demonstratively away from that conversation. That would just mean you determined that it was the conversation itself that was destroying linguistic presence, by taking for granted an increasingly diffuse center, one that couldn’t be sustained under scrutiny (if other people, or other kind of people, entered the conversation). A new center would then be created, one way or the other, but you wouldn’t be the one helping sustain it, so you would be failing, morally. So, you create a new center: you shocking everyone, you walking away, etc. Such an act falls outside of the boundaries of determination of truth/falsity, but it is undeniably meaningful. And meaningfulness precedes truth claims—you could say lots of true things that are meaningless.

So, in everything you do or say you are making assessments of the status of the most proximal center: here’s what it needs to keep it strong, it can’t be strengthened or protected and so a radical shift in attention is necessary, etc. If you then represent to yourself what you have said or done (no one can be completely present to himself in any speech or action, so explicit self-questioning—why did I do that? is necessary here), you will reveal another, more distal center. That center was always there—you were attending fromit tothe more proximal center (I am using Michael Polanyi’s terms here) and you cannot notice the ground on which you stand when noticing something else. So, now this new center comes into view. The introduction of metalanguage, incidentally, serves the purpose of shutting down the inquiry at the emergence of a particular center—that center then provides the terms on which you assess your actions on the more proximal scenes. So, if you regret walking away from the conversation because that was “rude,” you have installed a metalanguage of etiquette, derived from a more distal center (the norms of a particular community, to be applied in certain social settings) that sets the limits for your actions in relation to the more proximal center. (Of course, “rudeness” always needs to be interpreted, and, exceptions being the plague of any metalanguage, you can always save the metalanguage by invoking a “decision” here as well. If this anomaly troubles you, you either shut it down and carry out what you judge to be the most widely accepted course of action, or you open it up, which returns us to the continuing inquiry.)

If your attentions on the more proximal scene reveal a crisis at the center of the more distal one, the process of inquiry continues. You realize that not only was this specific conversation essentially dead, but so are lots of others that, until recently, you were taking pretty seriously. I think that my efforts to shed light on neutralizing metalanguages and the “patron theory of politics” converge here, because the crisis of the center will always, I think, prove to be a crisis of the metalanguage imposed by defenders of that center, and the crisis is caused by the exploitation of the legitimacy of that metalanguage by specific interests. These may very well be interests sincerely devoted to the metalanguage: no doubt those who use the concepts of a putatively neutral social science to advance the cause of “social justice” consider themselves the truest sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and so on. You can try to make the center hold by defending the metalanguage but, like insufficient doses of antibiotics, that just makes the “infection” (its partisan “misuse”) subtler and more tenacious. The metalanguage is the anomaly, and therefore the crisis, not its distortions.

“Norms” are really imperatives, and that is what the center issues. “Don’t be rude” conflicts with “dump these BSers.” There’s no universally applicable imperative telling you how to choose which one to obey, but if you refrain from rudeness does the imperative to dump the BSers fade away or become more insistent? If you dump the BSers, are you haunted by echoes of the imperative to be polite? The answer to these questions won’t prove anything yet, but we can pursue the matter further. If the obeyed imperative squashes its competitor, there’s nothing more to think about. Maybe there’s nothing more to think about, and the decision was the right one; maybe you’ve decided to stop thinking, in which case the subdued imperative will act up again eventually. (Perhaps a psychopath is someone who never hears competing imperatives.) If the two continue to co-exist post-decision, then can one imperative, or its successor in a new situation, be incorporated within the other? Maybe you can obey the imperative to be polite while finding subtle ways to interfere with the BS; maybe you can obey the imperative to dump the BSers while obeying the imperative that precedes that to be polite: the imperative to establish and follow rules of sociability. You provoke, or you walk away, and you take advantage of the paralysis or outrage thereby induced to clear the air and reset the norms.

So, the way to reconcile competing imperatives issued by differing centers is to listen for an imperative from a center preceding and founding both. How do we do that if we’re not anthropologists and historians rolled into one, with a history of morality readily available for direct application? You disclose the more absolute imperative by trying to find a way to obey both the imperative to be polite and the imperative to expose BS, i.e., be candid. This requires some abstraction from both: being candid and being polite both take on various forms, even within the same normative system, and some of those forms must overlap. Imitation and practice are both important here: reflection can’t answer this question by itself. When you’ve successfully mastered politeness after fulfilling its imperatives a few thousand times, and have mastered (for most, perhaps, less completely) candor, after fulfilling its imperatives perhaps a few hundred (dozen, for the timid) times, you have some scripts to work with. What modification of the gesture or commonplace you’ve executed countless times would allow some candor in? And then some more? What modification of the careless, free speaking, outrageous lout you’ve successfully performed could be modified to allow for a compelling gesture of politeness? It is by carrying out such experiments that you will find the more absolute imperative, and that imperative will come to compete with other more absolute ones in the course of your moral education.

Seeking out the more absolute, which is a conversion of the more originary, imperative is equally a forward looking act. The problem is not just to synthesize politeness and candor; it is to do so within the existing imperative architecture. Scientific inquiry and technological advances are fields in which moral problems are tested out and moral education conducted. How can that politeness/candor articulation be achieved in the process of civilizing some of that architecture? Of course I have in mind the internet and social media, as means of and metaphors useful for redescribing human interactions. But even far more familiar inventions, like cars and air travel, have possible moral dimensions that have been unexplored. All of these features of the modern landscape will be liberal by default if they’re not seen as screens upon which moral questions are projected. What counts as politeness on the roads—where is the place for candor in traffic? Maybe the possibilities for both are drastically reduced—but rather than fantasizing their disappearance, the imperatives we would advance for acting in and thinking about these fields would be aimed at creating new possibilities, new spaces where the problem of articulating candor and politeness (just one example, of course) could be enacted. Because we want new opportunities to enact them, because acting as moral being represents the most ancient of imperatives. Looking for such chances is what we do when we point to or refer to any thing in particular. Here, working our way back to the originary imperative coincides with hearing the imperatives of the sovereign center. All of the technological apparatus, the imperative architecture, is in the service of the sovereign center, creating networks connecting the center to the various peripheries. The mode of inquiry here is homologous to the one I have been describing, as one navigates the competing imperatives of the traffic system, the google system, the financial system, and so on, articulating, for example, the tremendous pressures to conform to norms, manners, clichés, down to the slightest gesture, with the equally imperious compulsion to differentiate and market oneself. So, one tries out various ways of marketing oneself as a version of conformity that turns conforming into a sign of hierarchically ordered centers.

Disciplining Disciplines

A recent essay in The New Atlantis, “Saving Science,” by Daniel Sarewitz, makes the important argument that the goals of scientific disciplines cannot be set by the disciplines themselves, which therefore inevitably meet some externally determined need. The most obvious examples are state sponsored weapons, infrastructural and space-oriented projects, but campaigns for developing vaccines and cures also apply. The free play of inquiry itself, scientists just following the most intriguing and challenging questions raised in the course of inquiry itself would lead, Sarewtiz notes… nowhere. This is obviously true for softer disciplines, like the human sciences as well, which generally meet some less precisely defined imperative to improve modes of civilizational maintenance, social control and surveillance.

The disciplines have their deepest origins in ritual, myth, priestcraft, magic, and the traditional arts, crafts and labor techniques. We could distinguish between these practices within a still largely undifferentiated society in terms of their respective distance from the sacred center. Indeed, different distances from the center, which involve the creation of new, mediating centers, seems a likely origin for social differentiation itself. In Originary Thinking, Eric Gans, in distinguishing between morality (grounded in the equality of those spread around the center) and ethics (norms specific to some practice), hypothesizes that the origin of freedom is away from the center, for example in those hunting or gathering for food. For now, I’m more interested in the differing distances from the center than the specific question Gans deals with here. It’s a very interesting question, after all: if language was originally a strictly ritual affair, serving to mediate the relations between the group on what is ultimately a scene of distribution and consumption, what would be going on elsewhere, in particular in the more “productive” activities? We could easily imagine that for a while, at least, such activities would proceed as before, without the intervention of language.

At a certain point, sign use would enter the productive sphere, for the same reason it entered the human group in the first place: to defer violence. In this case, though, we can assume the forms of potential violence deferred would be lower stakes than those commemorated on the originary scene: say, a challenge not so much to the leader of the expedition himself but to a particular decision—he is leading the group in one way, an underling sees more potential in a different direction. This might ultimately come to blows, or worse, but in a fairly coherent group with shared goals, that’s unlikely—still, the availability of language would be a useful way to settle the dispute. Gans also suggests in The Origin of Language, in examining the succession of speech forms, that innovation is more likely at the margins than at the center, and this would be a confirmation of that intuition. For hunters out for days, chasing dangerous and elusive prey, a high degree of improvisation must be allowed for, far more than would ever be permissible on the ritual scene, and so communicative capacities would improve correspondingly. Still, once these hunters brought their kill back to the community and placed it at the center, they would bow down, intone the requisite chant and follow the established process of distribution and consumption like anyone else.

All disciplinary activity, then, no matter how seemingly impractical, unsupervised and free, is at bottom aware that something needs to be brought back to the center. We should see this constraint as a condition of disciplinary activity, not a restriction imposed on what would otherwise be a “purer” form of activity. Let’s say the hunters forget that they need to bring back food for the rest, or decide not to care—their “study” of their prey leads them to get interested in other, non-prey animals, then in the prey of those animals, whose migratory habits then become interesting, and so the band decides to follow them for a while, and so on. They would really be following one distraction after another, rather than being engaged in any sort of inquiry. In fact, the surrounding environmental penumbra of the prey animal does become “interesting” in all kinds of ways, but always in ways related to the primary task of understanding that animal’s habits and its relation to the community. The more curious hunters might in fact be the ones contributing most to the mythical center emanating from the sacrificial center, supplying reports of the animal in its natural habitat that in turn become stories of the animal as progenitor and creator of the human group itself, which stories in turn might be made more practical use of in subsequent hunts.

The very fact that an inquiry is an inquiry into something, that is to say, it has a center, is a mark of its reliance upon an external center. The inquiry then does, indeed, take on its own dynamics: Sarewitz, hoping that the dependence of science on externally produced needs and institutions will make science more “democratically” accountable describes at great length the pressure brought to bear on cancer researchers by cancer survival activist groups; it doesn’t seem to me, though, that these specific vectors of pressure contributed much to actually finding a cure (which, needless to say, we still don’t have, regardless of the constant setting of “deadlines” for one). How, exactly, external agencies are to assess the progress of the disciplines is itself a disciplinary question, one that the most powerful and aggressive interest group is no more likely to have an answer to than anyone else. Of course, JFK’s imperative to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade turned out to be remarkably precise—but how many other examples of this kind are there? Maybe JFK’s was just a lucky guess. Under the pressures of wartime, when those setting the goals have powerful incentives to set realistic ones, such mandates and initiatives (like the  Manhattan Project) can succeed, while once the setting of mandates gets opened up to the democratic process it becomes a way of grabbing for resources and elbowing out competitors. And strictly technical projects are more likely to succeed than more vaguely defined social engineering ones, etc. It may be that most, it may be that all, of the art or science of governing is learning how to set, assess and enforce constraints on the disciplines. This provides yet another reason for the placement of skunkworkers within the disciplines.

Work within the disciplines, then, must oscillate between distancing from and approaching the constraint set by the center. A new discovery regarding DNA transmission in cell reproduction might be pursued, not knowing where it will lead, and you might put together a new team of people fascinated by the problem of DNA transmission, even if they’re utterly uninterested in curing cancer, on the job; in the end, though, a decision must be made regarding whether this particular path is leading anywhere, “anywhere” as defined by the originating mission of that disciplinary space. Of course, promising, but aborted work done in this discipline might turn out to be highly useful for some other discipline, addressing some other problem. At each point along the way decisions have to made, decisions often productive of much resentment, as those utterly fascinated by that form of DNA transmission and furious at the philistine SOB who squashed the project, or those in the general public imagining that this was the way to a miracle cure can attest. (A healthy society would be one that generated primarily these kinds of resentment.) Within each disciplinary space there is a primus, and the sovereign center must generate within itself disciplinary spaces for assessing the decisions made within the disciplines.

There is only one political principle or axiom worth anything, and that’s because it is converted into an anti-political axiom when adhered to: if you give someone the responsibility to carry out some task or function, you must give them the power they need to do it. It’s difficult, but possible to imagine forms of democracy that accord with this insistence, at least for a while; it’s impossible to imagine any form of liberalism that does. Liberalism compulsively undercuts any form of delegated responsibility—even one as simple as “maintain public order” must be subject to “checks and balances,” “oversight,” “review,” etc., at every level and at every moment. That liberal societies function at all is due to the fact that most of any social order is run non-liberally, liberalism being wholly parasitic on established civilizational forms. (The question of the survivability of liberal societies therefore comes down to the question of whether the parasitosis can be kept at merely chronic levels)

The converse of the axiom, that someone with power must be loaded up with corresponding responsibilities, while true, is not as primary a principle. Power may have to accede to its responsibilities, it may precede and discover them, power precedes any delegation, and is always at least somewhat in excess of any responsibilities. Fixing power with its responsibilities is a result of the apotropaic tendency of subjects at least as much as the acceptance of responsibility by power. But whether it’s a superior delegating power or an inferior requesting uses of that power, built into the delegation or request is a responsibility to supply the power needed to see it through. The establishment of the commensurability of responsibility and power is the constraint establishing the disciplines of the human sciences. That’s what those of us doing sociology, theology, anthropology, psychology, literary studies, etc., are all engaged in: finding ways to “read,” in practical terms, the gap between the social center and that center’s embedment in in attentional centers throughout the social order. And to read it in such a way as to close it. This means reading the center in terms of centrality; and the relation between center and centrality is in the ways of thinking, speaking and acting amongst the subjects needed to establish commensurability. Inquiring into the practices that would streamline the imperative exchange (orders and requests) between ruler and subjects is transcendental inquiry. Even in the physical sciences, some project set by the center, whether it be creating a new weapons system or curing a disease, is the enabling background of disciplinary work.

When you study something human, the purpose is to see something in what people are doing that they themselves don’t see. They are actors, you are a spectator; they embarked on a trajectory in their action that can retrospectively be constructed narratively—the spectator can see the beginning in terms of the end, which the actor couldn’t have known, the spectator can try out different beginnings and ends so as to see different events and actors in a different light, the spectator can move back and forth between macro and micro levels in a way the actor couldn’t, and so on. You can construct a narrative that would be recognizable to the actor as a richer account of what he took himself to be doing; or, you can construct a narrative that would represent the actor to himself in alienating terms. How you approach the task will depend upon how the actors and events you are studying serves as a center from which you hope to extract imperatives. The disciplinary space is where we argue over these questions and construct such a center, and you have a disciplinary space when enough of these decisions have been made so that those within the discipline can readily generate new questions while those outside of the discipline would essentially be guessing if they tried.

What the disciplinary space brings into view is the relation between margin and center—a strong theory enables us to oscillate between the actions taking place on the margin (actors engaging one another) and the center that is apparent only through the interactions of those seeking to protect or usurp it. Ultimately, even the most self-aware and intelligent actor—even the analyst himself if he were the actor—must allow his mimetic engagements with other actors to obscure the relation to the center revealed in their interaction. Here, disciplinary inquiry must be ruthless: all words and gestures and other signs that direct the actors’ attention toward one another must be replaced with a discourse that systematically reads the interactions as signs of the center, as an iteration of the originary scene that simultaneously iterates previous iterations after which there was no turning back. After your inquiry there should also be no turning back, because the center will have revealed a new imperative to introduce a new gradient of deferral, replacing some potential future resentment with a sign pointing out something new in the world.

Center and Centrality

If the metalanguage of literacy is both the equivalent and the vehicle of the imperium in imperio, the ethical practice that follows is reducing the metalinguistic dimension of language to its most minimal, which is the necessity that any use of language reference, iterate and modify some other use. The minimal metalanguage would simply be showing rather than concealing this dependence on differential repetition. Now it is possible to articulate the (meta)linguistic problem with the thought of the center. The way to do this is to address a problem in centered thinking that I have alluded to (and somewhat more) on a few occasions (it could hardly be completely avoided) but have not addressed directly and in a sustained way: the distinction and relation between the desired and ultimately consumed central object, and the subsisting center, which remains in the memory and praxis of the group subsequent to the event itself. It is the imagined central object, or, to borrow Jacques Lacan’s orthographic practice, the Object, that is the target of the group’s resentment and the source of its newly discovered/created communal being.

We can imagine a very minimal difference between the two, for starters. We could hypothesize that the sign issued on the originary scene would guide the group through its consumption of the object (the sparagmos) by serving, in that frenzied feast, to maintain sufficient order so as to prevent a new violent outbreak. Once the meal is completed, the participants might just walk away and return to their pre-human hominid existence—it’s possible that the scene was forgotten many times before it finally “took.” What would have made it “take” would have been, I would suggest, a final issuance of the sign, gesturing toward the inedible remains of the animal, which would have completed or “closed” or “sealed” the event as an event. More of a metonymy than a metaphor, this representation of the continuity of the relation between margin and center would have inscribed the sign in the group’s memory. Nothing might change in their everyday interactions for a while, but every fresh kill would re-ignite the same mimetic crisis and call forth the remembered sign. The Object, or centrality beyond center, would be nothing more than this memory and the maintenance of the unity of the repeated event.

And we can imagine a maximal difference between the two. When the tiniest object, event, or gesture can take on enormous, maybe even world-historical significance, we have the maximal difference between the center, some point on which attention converges, and centrality, or the capacities and supports that articulate that point along with numerous others to a distant social center. Let’s take, for example, the question much discussed on the American right, whether the Iran “deal” is, in fact, a “deal,” and, if so, between which entities—the Obama Administration and Ayatollah Khamenei, or the United States and Iran. In the end, there is something we could look at, physically direct our attention towards: specific language in a document, the actual signatures of specific, well known people—signatures that could be “authenticated” by handwriting experts (who have themselves been “certified” by experts at “recognized” institutions, etc.). But the fact that people (and it would be carefully selected people) would look carefully at such things is due to the various international political protocols and domestic legal traditions and practices in the US and Iran and that would make such looking meaningful. The object here is some scribbles on a piece of paper; the Object is the alignment of power that follows the ascertaining of international “legitimacy,” which in turn references an entire history of “legitimacy.”

It’s clear that the maximal difference between center and centrality, object and Object, is the mark of a more civilized order. We can also see all the potential for degeneration and de-civilization in this distance. This potential lies in the possibility of making the abstracted norms sites of power struggle. Linguistic metalanguage (beginning, it can’t be stressed enough, with writing and the creation of alphabets, grammar, and diacritical marks) results from the study of language and represents the linguistic elements required for a workable writing system. In the process it shapes language—for example, a literate population will speak in more standardized and grammatically correct sentences than a non-literate population. (A non-literate population won’t even understand what a grammatical error is.) For subsequent metalanguages, predicated upon print culture and literacy, like philosophy, literature, and eventually the social sciences, such features as correct grammar and the logic developed out of it also seem to be “in” language, and therefore in the language users themselves: they come to “naturally” represent these cognitive “skills” and “capacities” as “in” the individual (like Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device, somehow planted in the brain). As a result, that such features are dependent on language can be forgotten, and cognition can be spoken of as if language were just an incidental means of representing cognitive activity already going on. Within the disciplinary and empowered metalanguages, then, the objects of thought and praxis are constructs of the metalanguage itself.

The metalanguages acquire their power by representing and enframing human and social “attributes.” History and tradition are displaced from the scene, even in the disciplines devoted to their study: what ends up getting studied is the development of the attributes of the human that the disciplinary metalanguages have singled out and made available for study and transformation. This is the equivalent of the imperium in imperio: a vast body of disciplinary knowledge that Power cannot help but draw upon and use to frame its own means and ends. We have a center, then, that obscures centrality—you could say I’m putting Heidegger’s notion of the “forgetting of Being” in originary and absolutist terms. The center is now whatever can be attended to—defined, treated, assessed, categorized, manipulated—by disciplinary metalanguages. There is no centrality because those disciplinary metalanguages cannot attend to themselves, which is to say their origins. Sociology cannot say why there is such a thing as society; psychology why there is a “psyche” or mind; linguistics why there is language; anthropology why there is Man, or men; economics why there is exchange and money, and so on. A simulated “human being” is projected onto a screen as a placeholder for the attributes identified by the discipline.

What writing represents are scenes and events of language, not “language” itself. Along with writing, scenes and events of pedagogy are constructed—a text comes prepared to serve as the source of new texts, oral and written. A text is always a pretext. Language learning is lifelong—entering a new disciplinary space is learning a new language. The way you learn a language is to repeat what speakers of that language say, get it wrong a lot of times, and finally start to get it right. To use a word mistakenly is to overlay one rule or imagined context with another—the word, phrase, sentence or discourse you are using works in some other context you are familiar with, and you assumed that context could be transposed onto the one shared by speakers of that language. Language comes in chunks that are transportable—we’re using the same words and expressions as English language speakers have been for centuries, often in very similar ways—but also very site specific: bits of language are shaped for specific uses.

In the relation between the mistake and the accepted use lies the relation between center and centrality. “Mistake” is a very broad concept: the way a lot of philosophers use the word “object” would be mistaken in a lot of ordinary situations. It would make the users in those situations laugh, just as philosophers might laugh at an untutored use of the word. It is in such instances that we demonstrate to ourselves that language is in its shared use, not in the things and qualities in the world it purports to refer to. There is reference, but we refer, language doesn’t. So, the language/metalanguage distinction is displaced by the center/centrality relation, which presents as the differing degrees and modes of mistakenness identified by a group of users. Not all mistakes are equal, which is to say not all of them are equally revelatory of the centrality of the center. Some mistakes point more pointedly to the origins of the use of a particular “chunk” wherein centrality is obscured by a new center.

There’s no need to advocate that people deliberately make mistakes (if you do it deliberately, is it still a mistake?). It will happen whenever we press on those points in a discourse where the discourse seems to hang together by an equivalence between an “attribute” or “quality” and a metalinguistic concept. If you try to dislodge such concepts from their representational relation to an inner substance, you cannot but use them mistakenly. I certainly am advocating lots of “wild” theorizing, with abductions and hypotheses too big for the “data set” they draw upon. But also innovative writing, in particular writing that infiltrates the standard forms and disciplines, revealing their bureaucratic origins and ends, along with the modes of inquiry they’ve made impossible. The only inescapable absolutes are centers and origins.

Can originary disciplinary spaces founded on mistakenness, eschewing imperium in imperioambitions, provide useful knowledge, to the center or anyone else? The knowledge gained in such spaces is both knowing that and knowing how, above all, knowing how to enter various spaces and be useful within them. Schools and universities would be more explicitly what they already are, training camps preparing the young to act and improvise within the constraints set up by the articulated social hierarchy. The metalanguage of literacy installs a new imagined possibility, one which would be inconceivable prior to writing: that everyone could, eventually, be led to agree—potentially, on everything. If there is a single reality represented by language, and through the perfection of logical and empirical methods every single claim could be deemed to be either in agreement or disagreement with reality, then there is nothing preventing us from producing a complete map of reality and having that map already here, in potential, contained in the most advanced methods but also in every human mind or soul. But even two people saying exactly the same thing are not completely in agreement, because one says it after the other, or they say it in different contexts, or in response to different questions or exigencies, and with different audiences, different consequences and implications. The physical sciences approximate the production of universally agreed upon statements most closely, which is why the social sciences are so tempted to promote those sciences, at least nominally, as models.

The striving toward universal agreement is propelled by the development of declarative culture as the negation of imperative and ostensive cultures. This is the imperium in imperioof proceduralism, which likewise imagines the possibility of a world completely mapped by declarative sentences—in the case of proceduralism, explicit agreements and regulations promulgated by authorities who are authorized to do so by other explicit agreements or regulations. The fantasy is that the imperative order will be erased, or that we will all be induced to participate in the fiction that that is the case (that inducement would be the only remaining imperative). Even the insistence that one agree with oneself, from moment to moment, from one topic to another, interferes with the effort to hear older imperatives from the center. Declarative culture will always have the tendency toward metalinguistic imperialism, but also opens the possibility of infra-language, a term used by Bruno Latour: “language used by analysts to help them become more attentive to the actor’s own dully developed metalanguage, a reflexive account of what they are saying.” There will always be metalanguage in literate cultures, and the use of infralanguage is to take metalanguage from outside the discourse it regulates and have it circulate within that discourse. The compulsion to agree reflects a desire for anonymous discourse, to say what anyone could and should say; but only someone can point to the center. The Object, the Center, Centrality is indicated in the difference between metalanguage and infralanguage, where the object framed by metalanguage is given an infralinguistic and infradisciplinary originary structure: we see that at one point that thing provided for the organization of a new form of attention.

Primus and Skunkworker

Equality simply means the same, in some respect. If you see equality as a value in itself, there’s no reason not to make people equal in more and more respects. Making people equal in more and more respects means uncovering inequality (difference) in previously overlooked respects. This process need never end because people who have been made the same in some respect can, by virtue of that construction of sameness, turn out to have been made different in some new respect.

But (and this is quite elementary) sameness implies some form of measurement so that the objects in question can be reduced to that measure. All things are equal insofar as they have mass, and can measured by a scale, or length, insofar as they can be measured by a ruler. Then, of course, some things are heavier and longer than others, with the Procrustean solutions implicit in the decision to measure in the first place. In social terms, this entails reduction to a single center. Members of a club are equal insofar as they are members of a club, and subject to a set of by-laws and whoever enforces those by-laws. Members of a modern state are equal insofar as they are all directly subject to the state, and the laws it governs by.

Thus, the “moral equality” which Larry Seidentop (Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism) sees as having been introduced by the gradual reshaping of the Western social order through the middle ages by the Catholic Church cannot be sustained in a post-Christian world where the only shared center is the state. The moral equality of Christians is equal in relation to God. Everyone deserves moral consideration as a member or potential member of the Church and child of God, not as a bare “human being.” Let’s frame this in Girardian terms: the Christian revelation discredits scapegoating and human sacrifice by displaying what we can anachronistically call the “bad faith” of such means of maintaining social stability. The selection, as an object of violence, of someone stigmatized in some way, follows not from any genuine knowledge of social relations or divine-human relations, but the logic of mimetic rivalry and crisis. So, from now on, violence against individuals is proscribed, because intrinsically tainted by scapegoating tendencies, while those who engage in violence can be prevented and punished, but only according to rules designed to ensure that such prevention and punishment is free of traces of mimetically motivated hostility. So, everyone is equal in being accorded such protection from mimetically motivated violence.

But what of citizens of a liberal order which knows not Christianity, or sees Christianity as part of the order that needed to be smashed for that liberal order to emerge? What if shared protection from mimetically motivated violence is itself productive of a form of inequality insofar as some members of the social order seem to navigate the system established by that proscription better than others? On what grounds can a member of “civil society” claim that the right to disable, hunt down, indelibly mark members of the “privileged” group is any less valid than the right to be given a fair trial? If equality is now equality in relation to the state as central power, and the state itself is driven by the imperative to ensure that more citizens, and more aspects of their life, are equalized, the benefit of the doubt will always be given to whomever can claim to have uncovered a previously neglected, and therefore all the more scandalous, form of inequality—even if it’s just some feature of social life that hasn’t been subject to any regulation up until now, or even some new form of life generated by the latest equalization campaign.

So far, we have the basic right-left configuration in liberal social orders. The left finds some new inequality, remedy for which it appeals to the state in the prescribed terms; the right, meanwhile, defends the existing form of equality against this new discovery. The best strategy the right can think of within this order is to try and counter leftist encroachments by claiming that those encroachments will in fact create new forms of inequality: so, the equalization of income promised by the welfare state makes blacks more unequal by undermining black family structures, or mass Muslim immigration will lead to a renewed persecution of homosexuals. But these stopgaps can’t work very well because the right always positions itself so as to erect or resurrect some discredited form of inequality: the bourgeois family form that blacks supposedly need oppresses “sexual minorities,” the warning against Muslims is Islamophobic, etc. It is always only a matter of time before the state realizes its equalizing power is aggrandized by recognizing the new form of equality.

If the state is exhaustive of social centrality, or, more precisely, if a state dedicated to liberal equality, as the successor and eviscerator of Christian moral equality is exhaustive, this problem cannot be solved. Perhaps restoring or recreating a divine center to which the sovereign would be subject would solve it, but only by recreating the old problem of a “real” sovereign to which the actual sovereign must be subject, thereby opening a space for other powers claiming to speak for the real sovereign. But let’s say, with Andrew Willard Jones, that the problem is with the concept of “sovereignty” itself, with its assumption of an original violence, ready to break out as soon as social control is lifted, and therefore the need for an ultimate, unquestioned source of law and order. The mimetically motivated violence targeted by Girard is not a Hobbesian war of all against all, it is an all against one which only works if a kind of intellectual dishonesty is shared by all: the lie of scapegoating and human sacrifice is that the sacrality lies in the victim rather than in the terror of a center that no longer defers, whose power of deferral is overridden by the sameness, the equality of mimetic desire.

The social center is the monarch, or, perhaps, we can say the primus. Someone has to occupy the center because all attention converges on the center, so an occupant who can turn back that convergence is indispensable to social order. By the time resentful attention has all converged upon the center, it is too late, so resentful attention must be dispersed through localized centers—establishing and constraining these centers is the highest priority of the primus. This involves the differentiation of forms of attention: a craftsman’s resentment over a perceived degradation in the social status of his profession over the last generation will not readily join in a common cause with the philosopher resentful over his latest opus not receiving what he considers its due appreciation. But, of course, this means that the craftsman must be a genuine craftsman, the philosopher a genuine philosopher (the priest a real priest, the teacher a real teacher, and so on), or, more precisely, that we can measure any particular practitioner against the standard established by the tradition of that practice. In that case, there is a kind of equality among craftsman and aspiring craftsman, which is enforced within the discipline and sanctioned by the primus, who insists that the standards of craftsmanship be maintained, and a kind of equality amongst the various orders insofar as all have constraints imposed by the primus. There is a lot of what we could call “equality” here, but they are different forms of equality incommensurable to each other. Resentment can never converge toward a single target, like the rich/white/straight/cis/male who is the virtual and permanent antithesis of equality. A non-sovereign center would restore a “middle,” not of social status and estates (at least not necessarily—I don’t mean to exclude anything) but of diverse modes of deferral and discipline.

But how can the primus assess the effectiveness of his constraints? The weakness in the order I am describing is that the primus is dependent upon the primus among craftsmen, the primus among academics, the primus among scientists, and so on, and the equality provided by the standards of each practice or discipline can just as readily be used to set in motion the process of uncovering inequalities as demands for equality within a liberal order. Aside from the politicizing of the disciplines, if the disciplines are governed by nothing more than a top-down mode of authority, it is hard to see how the primus could prevent more commonplace forms of corruption, like cronyism, bribery and so on. And entrenched forms of power that only simulate adherence to the traditions grounding their authority must in turn attempt to influence the social primus as well.

The only solution for this problem I can think of is for the primus to have eyes and ears within every discipline and institution. These eyes and ears must be agents simultaneously loyal to the primus and to the practice of the discipline in question—“equally” loyal to both, in fact, or, better, refusing any distinction between the two loyalties. They are equal amongst themselves in relation to the primus, and participate in the form of equality constitutive of the discipline. They are normal participants in the discipline, and if the discipline and its practices proceed in accord with its own center, the object or aim that elicits the capacities the discipline is established so as to elicit, no one need know they are there, and they need never do more than issue occasional, perfunctory reports to the primus—if that.

If these agents, let’s call them “skunkworkers” in a bit of a misnomer, detect derogations in the disciplines, they first of all work within existing channels in order to remedy them. That is, they first of all leverage their own “rights” within the institution to correct its course. Having exhausted all such means, they report to the primus with suggestions regarding personnel changes and revisions of the founding constraint of the discipline. Sometimes the skunkworkers will be known as such by their co-workers; sometimes they will be undercover—different situations call for different approaches. Sometimes the skunkworkers’ proposals will be rejected by the primus; sometimes the primus will see the skunkworker as the source of the problem, and someone so relied upon must be severely punished in that case (sometimes the primus will be wrong, sometimes the skunkworker will genuinely fail, or even “go bad”). The skunkworker accepts this risk as part of his higher form of loyalty.

The skunkworkers would set the moral tone of the social order: they are the bearers of the moral center informing, but not conflicting with or presuming to judge, the social center occupied by the primus. Everyone would wonder whether this or that co-worker were or might be a skunkworker—like any form of social control, this might sometimes be frightening, but the fear of being accused wrongly by a skunkworker would be proportional to a broader breakdown in social and moral order. The only solution would be for the primus to recruit new skunkworkers, perhaps to spy on the existing ones or, in the most extreme cases, for the skunkworkers who remain committed to disciplinary excellence to shift their allegiance to a new primus. If order is well-maintained, the skunkworkers whill be admired and imitated, and everyone would aspire to be a kind of apprentice skunkworker. And that, indeed, is how skunkworkers would be selected in the first place.

The skunkworker is also the form taken by the continuity between our present order and a future one governed by the articulation of primus and skunkworker. What the skunkworker does is what we can all do, in whatever discipline or institution we are placed: we can all represent the originary structure of the discipline and expose distortions and corruptions, even if there’s not really anyone to expose them to. The exposure must be expected to create the audience for it. In doing so, we assume, on the one hand, maximal continuity between the present order, no matter how bad things may be, and a genuine centered ordinality—we operate under the assumption that all that’s really necessary is for everyone to clarify the terms of the disciplines, and that such clarification is a simple matter given than those terms are immanent in the discipline itself, once all extrinsic considerations (power, prestige, wealth, etc.) are “controlled for.” We also assume, on the other hand, that we are perpetually dissolving concentrations of resentment towards the center, simply by proposing new disciplinary practices and the incorporation of currently undisciplined practices within disciplinary ones. All people need is a compelling center, and all people need that, and so we counter all attempts at equalization by contributing to the construction of a center that would render such skirmishes irrelevant. Rather than erecting one center after another (whether political, intellectual or spiritual) to control the going astray of the previous center, we have the center of last resort (the primus) and the delegated powers of deferral that, all together, are “equal” in their actual composition of the power of the primus.