Programming, Power and Declarative Culture

For originary grammar, the history of civilization is the history of the distancing of the declarative speech form from the imperative. In the mythical and magical world, declaratives are subordinate to, and provide narrative structure for, imperative exchanges. To review: the primary relation to the center is through the ostensive sign, through which the community confers sacrality on the central object by deferring consumption of that object. The imperative speech form emerges from the inappropriate ostensive—one interlocutor names the object, but the object isn’t there, at which point the other interlocutor supplies the object. That accidentally discovered effect of the speech act can now be repeated deliberately. This takes place on the margins of the community, once the threshold of significance has been lowered sufficiently so that a variety of less than sacred objects can be named, for various purposes and not just the reinforcement of communal cohesion (although the accomplishment of any communal purpose at least indirectly reinforces that cohesion). Once the imperative has been discovered/invented, it can now be brought to the center and used to enhance ritual practice: requests can be made of the center, but if members of the community make requests of the center, they must imagine the center acceding to those requests only in exchange for obedience to a command from the center itself—a command that is a prolongation of the original “refusal” on the part of the object to be consumed, its repulsion of the desires of the group. This is what I have been calling “imperative exchange.” The declarative, as well, emerges on the margin, in the way I have examined in some recent posts, through the failed imperative, but also comes to be put to use in constructing narratives of “activity” at the center, activity that are in turn re-enacted ritually. In Gans’s account in The End of History, this is the origin of myth—narratives of the central figure surviving the predatory designs on it, conferring the gift of life upon the human community, and interacting through commands and benefits with that community. As long as we remain within mythological thought, and its magical adjunct, the declarative remains subordinate to the imperative—even if the declaratively constructed narratives, by virtue of the essence of the declarative, which is to at least defer the imperative exchange, must raise, in however muted a way, some question regarding its viability.

This liberation from the imperative is always relative: in refusing one imperative (in the first instance because one simply sees no way of fulfilling it), any declarative allows another one to be heard—an older one, but also one informed by the limits of the imperative exchange in question. To imagine we could be free of imperatives is to imagine we could be free of ostensives, which is to imagine ourselves outside of the world—a fantasy that is implicit in a more fully declarative culture. The imperative channeled by the declarative is, first of all, “don’t fulfill your side of the imperative exchange you have entered into”; but, second, this further entails directing your attention to something you couldn’t have noticed within that exchange—some consequence of continuing in that exchange that would ultimately cancel it. An imperative always comes from a center, so the more absolute imperative comes from a center both more ancient (reaching further back to the originary scene) and more powerful than the center one has been in commerce with. This absolute imperative is, over time, pared down to “don’t break linguistic presence,” and this entails bringing some repetition of the originary scene in to supplement the failing linguistic presence. The growing distance between declarative and imperative exchange involves the greater independence of the declarative linguistic form as such. Linguistic presence can be created in a greater variety of ways as the magic of words dissipates. Linguistic presence can be directly subordinated to attention management, which comes to include attending to the means of maintaining linguistic presence itself, i.e., letters, words, sentences, discourse more generally, but also the means of communication, the various possible positions taken by “communicants,” culturally significant layers of tacit meaning, and the institutions constraining discourse: all these elements of any utterance can now become the target of another utterance. The invention of writing in, of course, a huge leap in this regard, and the connection between alphabetical writing and the atomic (proto-scientific) view of the world has long been noted. More recently noted is the connection between the voicelessness of the written word and the monotheistic God to whom no qualities can be attributed. In very different ways, a single source of absolute imperatives is posited, and this in turn allows for unlimited analytical power: just as any utterance, and therefore any “piece” of reality can be broken down into its smallest, most basic components, so a divine voice speaking the absolute imperative that is both eternal and internal enables unprecedented examination of inner states of mind, conscience and feeling.

Such has been the trajectory of the Axial Age acquisitions and the modern scientific revolution (the laboratory) that is ultimately indebted to them. Many of the pathologies we can identify with modernization, such as rootlessness, alienation, and dispossession are also consequences of this trajectory. (And some would also trace these pathologies back to the Axial Age acquisitions.) We can’t know for sure that we can preserve the acquisitions without the pathologies, but I don’t see any plausible way of proceeding other than by assuming we can. I have suggested that the laboratory, generalized as the discipline, which both constitutes and is constituted by central power provides a way of targeting the pathologies while maximizing the acquisitions. The discipline is a social form that keeps “drilling down” below ever lower thresholds of significance, and this activity applies equally to the study of quarks and of conscience. The “solution” of the discipline is possible because the information age has introduced a new dimension to the “detachability” of the declarative from the imperative: the quintessential activity of the information age, programming, is a process of generating imperatives from declaratives. These are not the passive-aggressive imperatives of liberalism, which command you not to commit to obeying any commands (“Question Authority”!). If we think, rather, of a sentence that can be dismantled and reconstructed according to some rule, we can automatically generate imperatives that would bring us from the state of affairs represented by one declarative to that represented by one of its alternatives. The more independent declarative culture we have inherited is imperative-phobic, and “demands” (there are all kinds of paradoxes here) that we only carry out actions that can be fully justified on the norms of declarative sentences (reason and logic). We can develop a new kind of declarative culture that embraces imperatives by creating new ones out of the analysis of declaratives.

Let’s take a simple, descriptive sentence like “he had his main opponent arrested” and reverse engineer it. First, treat the sentence as composed of parts that could be replaced—“he” by “she” or “I”; “had” by “will have” or “could never”; “main” by “marginal”; “opponent” by “ally”; “arrested” by “executed” or “promoted.” We could right away see that the simplest sentence “contains,” as possibilities, dozens, even hundreds of other sentences. These sentences can be ranked in terms of their probabilities, given the original, sample sentence as a center around which the possible ones fluctuate. (They are all the things you didn’t say.) We can further treat the sample, central sentence as produced by or selected out of the narrowing of that field of probabilities, as a result of all the “paths” the sentence has, quantum-mechanics style, “always already” taken. This field-narrowing can be accomplished by converting the sentence back into the questions it might be answering: who had his main opponent arrested?; who did he have arrested?; which opponent did he have arrested?; what did he do to his main opponent?; etc. Each question would have emerged from a particular field of concern: everyone has been wondering what the president would do next, or what was going to happen to a prominent figure—the question opens up one or another concern. The entire field of probabilities is generated by the deferral of an imperative, one side of an imperative exchange that has been refused. The imperative is a set of expectations: be ready for what will happen to the main opponent/watch what the president will do next/look for that oppositional leader’s profile to be raised. Maintaining the expectations involves a kind of readiness—the sentence now relieves you from those imperative expectations by violating them at least in part and commands you to configure a new field.

Keep in mind that we are focused on the utterance, not the topic of the sentence—on who is making the claim about the (presumed) leader, and not the leader himself—but also that there must be a line between the imperative obeyed, respectively, by the subject of the sentence, the utterer of the sentence, and the hearer of the sentence—such a line is a condition of intelligibility. Configuring a new field of expectations means generating a new field of probable sentences, of which we look for the one that best promises to maintain linguistic presence regardless of which expectations are realized, i.e., which allows us to thread the absolute imperative through a broader range of actual outcomes. We can identify that imperative by making the imperative represented by the sentence, the imperative obeyed by the utterer of the sentence, and the imperative obeyed by the “recipient” of the sentence “line up” more closely. We then make that imperative available for further iteration—it could turn out to be something like “become a marginal ally so as to accomplish what you would wish to as a main opponent.” The historical form of the absolute imperative will be a “remix” of the materials provided by the field of possible sentences: in this way, something that is imaginable and yet seems extremely unlikely can bolster a preparedness which grasps the broader reality but has failed catastrophically in some particular. Think of this thinking process as a maxim generating machine—the problem with generally true maxims, in politics and morals, is that without other maxims telling you how to apply them here and now, they’re really worthless. Originary programming is a kind of maxim assembly kit, making maxims adjustable for the occasion.

The absolutist assumption is that we all obey the same imperative, if we trace it back far enough. We don’t all clarify this imperative in the same way because the mining process involves extracting it from the vast mass of subsequent imperatives which have both made it more absolute (defer the most compelling imperative exchange) and thoroughly obscure it. The work of interpretation is ordering all imperatives in accord with the absolute one. This means we do assume that the king who had his main opponent arrested 3,000 years ago, the chronicler who recorded it 2,000 years ago, the scholars mulling over this chronicle for hundreds of years and those of us contemplating it today are all bound by the same chain of imperatives—to “understand” what that king did is locate ourselves within that imperative chain, and then to defer it, however slightly—to understand how it was is to imagine it might have been different. The way to do this is to generate forward that modified imperative chain. So, actual sentence A defers imperative X somewhat more agilely than possible sentence A1 and somewhat more pointedly than possible sentence A2; imperative X is now modified as the question we construct a given sentence as answering, and it takes the form of a “tell me…” command. That “tell me” command can in turn be converted to a command to make present or make available, which in turn brings us to a sacred or significant name of something to be made present or available in whatever way it makes itself present or available. Someone, at some point, wanted the intentions of that “main opponent,” and even his will, made present, in the name of central power. Those who read such a sentence today also want central power made present, even if now we obey the command to take into account and assimilate in advance the kinds of opposition that bedeviled previous rulers. We can convert the opponent’s aims and the king’s decision into “information” contained in our “stock” insofar as we ultimately obey the same command as both of them, and use that information to carry that command forward.

In principle, this practice could be a source of algorithms: an algorithm has fed into it selected features of an object or situation, along with the weight to be given to those features, separately or in combination, so as to set in motion a response: so, a male of race A, appearing (according to another algorithm for assessing likely age) to be age B, dressed as a member of social class C, with a posture indicating D level of potential aggressiveness, etc. (however complex we need it to be), is not to be allowed onto the premises, or is to be subject to a stricter degree of scrutiny (with “strictness” also being a term of art to be established algorithmically). We could eventually use computers to game out possible “auditioning” outcomes. But the qualitative dimension of assessment and decision is irreducible and always grounded in language—the more complex and targeted we make an algorithm the more its dependence upon humanly set values is evident. (The desire for a non-violent environment is a human value.) And political discourse is more interested in exposing presuppositions about power and sovereignty than in making supposedly rational decisions—the most rational decisions will be those that render those assumptions the most transparent. (The best argument for absolutist rule is that the distance between formal and actual power should be brought as close as possible to zero.) Since we can’t work with all of the sentences in the constitutive field of the sample, or nodal, sentence, we have to choose a few; these will be the few we feel we can best use as levers to make a link in the imperative chain visible that previously was not. This makes trolling, rather than logic, the model for the most powerful political discourse: trolling aims at eliciting responses from various actors that reveal things those actors would rather not reveal. It’s a way of issuing imperatives, to enemies and allies alike—the imperative is to show us which commands you really obey. Then all you have to do is reiterate, in perfectly declarative terms, the name and character of the god she obeys, the imperative exchange upon which she hangs her hopes—and present the clearer form of the same imperative, the one you obey.

Of course, the implication of this discussion is that the more absolute power becomes, and the lower the threshold of significance, and the more named and incorporated all elements of society, and therefore the clearer the imperative structure, the less uncertainty, and therefore the less need for algorithmic approaches to social order. The argument for absolutism is distilled from the acting out of the anarchist ontologists, by selecting amongst the imperatives they obey those that can be lined up with the imperatives we obey in making sense of them.

Absolutism, the Axial Age and the Laboratory

The moral and intellectual innovations of the Axial Age—from Confucianism and Buddhism in the East to philosophy and monotheism in the West—create an interesting dilemma in thinking through the implications of the abolition of imperium in imperio, or divided sovereignty. Under sacral kingship, the centrality of the king involves not just rule but ritual duties and ensuring the connection between the community and the cosmos. It may be that the occupant of the position wasn’t very secure (there would be many ways one could be found to have failed) but the position itself was. Under god-imperial rule, the occupant of the position becomes far more secure, while the sacral efficacy of the position becomes thinner and molded more precisely to the functions of rule itself—in other words, rationalized. Local and ancestral forms of worship continued to operate more directly on communities. On both levels, though, the sacred is essentially sacrificial: the origin of all benefits is identified, and a commensurate return of some part of those benefits must be made to that origin or its representative. The greater the benefit, the greater the obligation, which means that the sacrificial is always tending towards human sacrifice as its telos. This means slavery, mass armies and the conscription of large populations for imperial labor projects. As David Graeber has pointed out, these developments coincided with the introduction of coinage and debt that involved the “abstraction” of individuals from the communal and ritual forms in which they were embedded—“abstraction” through enslavement and dispossession.

At the same time, this abstraction and the development of markets on which abstracted individuals can engage in exchange leads to systems of justice: the measurement of acts against promises and obligations. So, we have two interrelated processes: one, the disappearance of situated individuals into anonymous masses; two, the singling out of individual rights and wrongs against a background of precedents and oaths, with judgment carried out by a specialized class of professionals. When “injustice” was done, it would likely appear as if the former process was impinging upon the latter: as if the individual treated unjustly were being sacrificed for some mass, impersonal, mindless purpose. The emergence of exemplary victims of sacrificial injustice would lead to the clarification of this appearance, and its articulation in legal, political and sacral discourses. It would be possible to look for such victims, and see them as implicit indictments turned back against the supposed justice system itself; more articulate victims would come to frame their plight in these terms. Critics of the justice system would come to see themselves as potential victims, and develop moral discourses of anticipatory victimage; they would gather around themselves a following, including many from among disaffected elites; and their victimization (which they would more or less deliberately be courting) would be revelatory. We would have cases in which the exemplary sacrifice would, in fact, be guilty according to the prevailing and perhaps rather sophisticated and indulgent political and legal norms; and, nevertheless, legible in their execution would be the implication of even a healthy justice system in sacrificial practices—remember, the mass sacrifice and the concept of justice have a common origin. The subsequent intellectual and moral revolution would play out differently under different conditions, but in all cases a new problem has been created: it is now possible to imagine a law that is “higher” than the law presided over by the monarch, and therefore a sacrality that supersedes that of the God-Emperor.

So, this is the problem that has gone unsolved until this day. Some Christian kingdoms of medieval Europe seemed to be close for a while, but those efforts didn’t last. We can blame competing elites for exploiting the opportunities afforded by the very concept of a “higher law” to introduce a wedge between that higher law and the “earthly” one, but the problem nevertheless remains, unless one believes it possible to dispossess ourselves of the acquisitions of the Axial Age—and no conceivable power center could do that because so dispossessing itself would not only make it too evil but too stupid to rule. In moral terms, the “axial” involves a prohibition on scapegoating: on reviving and reversing the logic of sacral kingship by imposing responsibility for the evils and ills of the community on some marginal individual or group. The way realize that prohibition is by building and fortifying institutions that ensure punishment is monopolized by accountable institutions and for offenses that have been named for the harm they do the community and the higher law. The implication is to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual: to collectively lay hands on an individual is to threaten to introduce uncontrolled violence into the community. This horror is the ancestor of today’s victimary discourses, but even before that of liberalism and democracy, with their elevation of the individual and the common man, regardless of the intellectually confused ways in which this elevation has been asserted. Now, while the implication of axial morality has been to confer a kind of sacrality on the individual (at least in the West—but could that be because it is in the West that axial logics have been vigorously pursued beyond elite circles?), that does not mean it is the only, or only possible implication.

Originary thinking, or anthropomorphics, helps us out here because it provides us with the hypothesis that the axial is in fact a recovery of the originary scene, in which the newly human community all participated in “addressing” a shared center. Such a recovery was needed in the massive dislocations, brought about at a high level of civilization, leading to the axial age. One way of superimposing the model of the originary scene on imperial civilization is to imagine a single human center: Truth, or God, toward which all can orient themselves and partake of this new center. These are the interrelated paths the West, in pushing axial logics as far as possible, have taken. But within the assumption of the global or universal center there is also the realization that the center can only be discerned within what we could call a “congregation of inquiry.” Christianity started out with small groups testifying to Christ revealing himself to them; philosophy and the ancient sciences likewise started out with small groups of adepts or inquirers who separated themselves from the confining ritual practices of the community. The “universal” radiates outward from such congregations, and can only be preserved by recreating them over and over again.

At some point power at higher levels must support and incorporate these congregations—that is ultimately the only way they could actually be “universalized.” But this also seems to be the starting point of all those conflicts between higher and secular law. The solution must lie in the incorporation of the congregation of inquiry into the very form of sovereignty. In universalism, the individual is imagined as potential victim of overweening power, and the solution is for that individual to be ever further abstracted so as to be acted upon by an even overweenier power. By contrast, the individual within the corporate congregation is imagined in his service to the sovereign, in exemplifying and further perfecting the sovereign’s identification with the higher law. The corporate congregants permeate the social order, bringing their more specialized inquiry into the originary-within-the-sovereign to bear on other areas of life. The missionary or evangelical goes out among men, preaching the word, living the word, and doing so, as much as possible, within the lives and languages of those amongst whom he moves. The undercover police agent represents the law within the lawless, and must pass as the lawless, while never forgetting their loyalty to the law, lower and higher, and their other law-preserving brethren. In both cases we have the enactment of the tension between the lower and higher, but the undercover agent is the better example for us now because it is impossible for that police officer, as long as he remains honest, to do anything other than serve the sovereign. He cannot rebel, or resist the sovereign, other than by becoming a criminal himself, which is not really rebellion or resistance; moreover, he serves as a harmless but potentially powerful corrective to misuses of power within the sovereign order itself, misuses that the sovereign would want to know about. This is especially the case because we can have undercover agents not only in lawless groupings but in organizations where the lawlessness would be a deviation, but with potentially devastating consequences. The undercover agent within the normal institution, or, each of us acting as if there are undercover agents within the institutions where we congregate, or, even more, as if we might have to take on, maybe even unsolicited, that role, represents the complete assimilation of the axial acquisition to the sovereign order. Disciplinary groupings or social “skunkworkers” permeating and infiltrating all institutions by naming their relation to the sovereign center is the form taken by the retrieval of the originary scene within advanced, civilized social orders.

We can think about this in terms of the apparently very different institution of the laboratory—perhaps the highest and most consequential result of “axialism.” The laboratory constructs a space in which all possible physical interactions are excluded except for the one we want to study. Often this is done hypothetically, by randomizing the selection of subjects for the study, or introducing probability calculations to eliminate the effects of processes that can’t be physically excluded. In fact, this is the kind of thing you do anytime you are seriously thinking about what the best thing to do is, in other words moral inquiry involves setting aside one’s own resentments and desires, “controlling” for them. The mode of thought is equally applicable to religious and secular, social and physical sciences—part of the laboratory model is to think “experimentally” about these very differences. If you are thinking experimentally you are retrieving the originary scene and representing it within the actual scene, because you are thinking, what act would introduce another degree of deferral into this congregation, and make us more focused on whatever our object is? As long as you are thinking of a bounded scene, freed as much as possible from obscuring interferences, you cannot possibly think of mobilizing a mob or identifying a possible sacrifice. If such practices are being endorsed, wittingly or not, by the sovereign, you can only stand as an example against it—not as a counter-power, because your very centrality in this case depends upon you eschewing any higher order centrality, which could only introduce interference into your scene. Once the higher law is made immanent to, constitutive of, constrained by, sovereign law, all the imperium in imperio problems invented by liberalism disappear. In assessing institutions and judging actors, we always look to the corporate congregants in those institutions—if we watch and listen to them, we will learn what is going on and what needs to be done.

Absolutist Epistemology

We know that something happened because we have relied upon someone who saw it happen and recorded and reported it (even in cases where we know what happened as a result of recordings made by some measuring instrument, someone had to read and report what was recorded by the instrument). Here’s a way of mapping this out. Let’s take a scene, say a fist fight between two individuals, with a small group of spectators. Let’s call the combatants “Jake” and “Nate.” Jake started the fight for obscure reasons, Nate fought back fiercely and briefly had the upper hand, then Jake landed a few solid blows to the head, wobbling Nate, who tried to get back into things by fighting dirty, but is ultimately knocked for good by an kick to the stomach. The fight comes to an end, which is already implicit in the simple statement, “Jake and Nate had a fight,” since “a fight” refers to an event with a beginning and an end. And, of course, we can imagine a varied range of spectators, some of whom knew Jake and Nate, some of whom knew one but not the other, some of whom egged Jake on, some of whom just wandered by and wondered what the fuss was about, some of whom had a rooting interest, some of whom were disinterested observers, etc., etc. Those spectators, and the combatants themselves, will tell others what happened: “Jake kicked the sh*t out of Nate”; “Jack wantonly assaulted Nate”; “Nate put up a good fight but was caught off guard by a violent assailant”; “two pathetic losers swung at each other like 50 times and connected maybe 5 times”; etc. And then the people they have told will “know what happened.”

Now, someone who wants to know “what really happened” will seek out other observers and piece together a more comprehensive account. But no one can be interested in “what really happened” at every event we hear referenced, directly or indirectly—or even more than a very tiny portion of them. For most of us, one of those partial initial observations will become the story, insofar as the event makes its way into the community’s discourse—“do you remember, it was right here, about 10 years ago, that Jake totally demolished Nate.” At that point it would take an enormous effort to create a more comprehensive picture, and only very exceptional circumstances would lead anyone to make the effort. The “received” version of events will make its way into the community’s discourse in various ways and at various levels—in references to Jake as a “tough guy” or “bully,” or to Nate as “that poor guy” or the one who “turned his life around after being attacked”; perhaps mothers and fathers tell their sons to be, or not to be, “like” Jake or Nate. In principle, but not really in practice, we could trace the series of speech events which led to these “epithets” being attached to the two men in “public memory.” In claiming that we “know what happened” or we “know who Jake and Nate are” we are relying upon, implicitly trusting, many people, many of who we don’t know but trust indirectly because we trust directly someone who trusted someone else directly who… eventually someone who can attest to having seen what happened. When we talk about knowledge, we are talking about networks of trust and networks of meaning—if Jake and Nate’s fight has worked its way into the public memory it is because it meant something to enough people to keep them talking about it. And by “meant enough,” I mean became an event that in its representation enabled some new anthropomorphization of the community, i.e., provided a means for constructing their humannenss in a new way. Let’s widen the sphere of inquiry here considerably by noting that all of our most basic, tacit, knowledge, has exactly this same form: we are absolutely certain we know the meaning of almost all the words we use regularly and, in fact, they rarely fail us, but we only know what all these words mean because we have heard others use them who have heard others use them who in turn…

So, in discussing epistemology, the theory of how we know, we should be focusing less on refining instruments of observation and protocols of investigation and more on clarifying who we trust, how much, and why. But this can’t be sorted out in any formulaic, quantitative manner either (I trust the NY Times 22% when it comes to political stories, 46% on the Arts and Leisure section…), nor could the chain of trust usually be followed more than a couple of links. If we flip the question, though, it might become more manageable: rather than “who do and can I trust,” the better question is “how do I present myself as trustworthy?” The former question is folded up in the latter. You present yourself as trustworthy, first, by demonstrating an awareness of the vast chains of trust implicit in any statement you make, and some preliminary mapping of the same; and, second, by letting others know which link in the chain you are tugging on. The particular “link” is the center of your discourse, and it is around that center that you provide the “mapping.” If I want to know whether Jake and Nate were goaded and lured into their battle because people were laying bets on the outcome, I’m going to be “tugging” at the chain differently than someone who wants to know whether they were drunk, because they want to show some link between alcohol consumption and violence. (What ideologies do is systematize the process of “tugging,” so the same mapping comes up every time—in the end, the chains of trust are broken and you have no choice but to trust the ideologue if you want any orientation toward events at all. If you look at our political commonplaces, you will see that they are “chunks” that can be endlessly repeated and inserted in discourse in various ways, but resist any attempt to construct even plausible, hypothetical chain of trust—that is, that can give good answers to the question, “who saw what that led them to say this?”). In order to pursue the question of what really happened, I have to approach the chain of trust with specific questions, and displaying trustworthiness entails being transparent about doing so.

I now want to approach all this in originary and absolutist terms. Every sign, or utterance, establishes a threshold: this is the level of significance at which I take note of something. Or: this thing, event, act, or feature must be marked in order to maintain the linguistic presence I have taken responsibility for. Another present, a real present, must be represented within this linguistic presence. If it must be represented in order to sustain this linguistic presence, then it must resolve some more or less pending crisis facing that presence. If I introduce that present so as to resolve or delay the crisis within this presence, I am now able to detect more distant, less probable and “thinner” crises, and represent them as well (so as to make them even more distant, less probable and even thinner or vaguer). In the process you construct a linguistic presence with feelers that keep reaching further into the past and future. But for one present to be represented within a linguistic presence, the two presents must be simultaneous. This is always possible because events “happen” when they register and are iterated so, insofar as the effects, say, of Homer speaking of Achilles slaying Hector ramify today, that event is contemporaneous with my speaking of it now. That means that the effects must be represented as effects, caught up in all the other effects of other events that are equally simultaneous. So, it’s not so much “Homer tells of Achilles slaying Hector” as it is “this is the way of referencing Homer’s narrative that I need here to displace and articulate other possible ways of referencing it (or refusing or neglecting to reference it),” making it simultaneous, here and now.

In other words, in referencing the Illiad in a particular way, I tug on a chain of trust that reaches back to Homer and his (their?) original audience. So, the “epistemological” question is whether I have tugged and therefore tightened it, or torn it. The answer lies in what will be said by others after I say this—and after I say it, I become one of those others. These others are as obliged to maintain the linguistic presence as I was, and that means proceeding under the assumption that I have both tugged the chain and torn it—like the fate of Schrodinger’s cat, we can’t know until the new linguistic presence is created. Insofar as you can see the chain being tugged, and therefore you see other chains of trust breaching the threshold of significance, you can keep tugging and tightening one of those; insofar as you see it torn, you work on repairing the breach. Both responses involve enhancing simultaneity, that is, representing my speech act as simultaneous with the presents I have represented, and as simultaneous with your own. As my reference above to the provenance of our language suggests, we are always rendering simultaneous countless presents, and we try to maximize responsibility for as many as possible. The model for this kind of semiotic presencing is sovereignty: you acknowledge that my utterance has brought into being a world you must find your way in and sustain. Even if you’re sure that I’m wrong in every possible way, morally, politically, intellectually, you will only make things right by inhabiting that wrongness.

Insofar as you have listened to my utterance you have started to obey and obliged yourself to further obedience to this imperative to submit my sovereign utterance. (Of course, we can ignore what someone says, but only because we have a prior obligation to another imperative that includes disregarding this one—that is, we are never outside of this network of trust, which has an absolutist and imperative structure.) To use a well-known example from early in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, if you are on a construction site and your co-worker says “brick” you bring him a brick—that’s what it means to “understand” him. Your responsibility to any utterance is to bring the equivalent of that brick. And what is needed is the missing present without which this particular node within the network of chains of trust might collapse. The missing present is located in whatever in the imperative (to sustain the world of the utterance) cannot be obeyed, and that present is supplied by finding a way to obey that was unanticipated in the imperative itself. If your co-worker’s wrong and you save him by bringing him, not a brick, but what he really needs you’re still obeying him. Insofar as we’re engaged in inquiry, which means we are participating in a disciplinary space, what has happened when you are not clear as to what the equivalent of “brick” is that one of the links in the network of trust has been exposed as unreliable or unaccounted for. And it must be a link that is needed now—a link we must attend to in order to attend from it to some objects framed by a new question, aiming at a new configuration of simultaneity. That link—say, an interpretation of a canonical text that someone has noticed overlooks certain assumptions underlying that text—has fallen out of simultaneity, because no threads from it can be represented in the present, which is to say the discourse in question has failed to register its effects as occurring now. That is the present that must be constituted in order to restore simultaneity, or linguistic presence. Doing so might knock other links out of simultaneity, within unanticipated ramifications. The imperative we are following in such a case is to identify who has seen what, within what set of disciplinary imperatives, and by what chain of custody has this knowledge come to us. The brick equivalent establishes an ostensive-imperative-declarative articulation that answers the question that has emerged out of the unobeyable imperative. And by “imperative” in this context, we mean primarily expectations: you follow certain rules (imperative orders) in order to elicit a specific range of responses from some sector of reality. It is when you get a response you are not prepared for, when you encounter an unnamed or even unnameable object, that the “brick equivalent” becomes necessary. In the end such a disciplinary order relies on faith and a kind of absolutism: a commitment to sustain the linguistic presence, however frayed, transmitted to you by the other.

The Counter-Inquisition

Power operates top-down, but down below we can give power centers ready to be activated. Liberalism has infiltrated all institutions, but it can never completely conquer them because liberalism is intrinsically parasitic: it needs a center to be de-centered. Counter-infiltration therefore involves holding the center, even if the center is just basic competence, which we now know is equivalent to whiteness. I call victimary moral panics the “Inquisition,” with apologies to the real thing, because they function essentially as human rights show trials. The discourse is prosecutorial, with the charges constructed out of what would be the “pre-crime” of earlier, successfully prosecuted offenses (what is now “racist” is whatever perception or assumption might have led you to say or do whatever was “racist” last week). So, accusations with follow-up questions presupposing the legitimacy of the accusation. “When did you stop beating your wife” become “when did you stop the silent, implicit abuse of not believing all women everywhere”? The crimes are all necessarily made up, as terms like “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” etc., function in exactly the same way, and have exactly as much conceptual content, as “counter-revolutionary” did in the USSR. They are simply ways of identifying enemies of the people.

It is very tempting to try and turn the inquisition around, to start asking “leading” questions and make the same accusations that can be so damaging when directed toward you. This works as well as calling your KGB interrogator the “real counter-revolutionary.” If our starting point is liberal discourse, then the goal is to surface the political imaginary and boundless resentments, and the way to do that is to keep restating what that discourse wants everyone to do. In this way you infiltrate their discourse, and occupy the center under attack. What the liberal discourse always wants you to do is engage in symbolic (so far, mostly) lynching and real and symbolic vandalism. Against whom? Against whomever power is gathering against: where is there a vulnerable enemy, where is there some sinecure that could be turned to use, some institution where control could be more firmly secured, some new rabble that can be recruited? So, first of all you read off all these elements of the attack from the discourse itself. It’s a work of constant, patient translation. I think just about anyone who might be reading this knows all this.

The liberal method is to impose an egalitarian grid on all differences and present this as a self-evident indictment. It then becomes in their interest to inflate those differences. This means that if the grid is removed, they are providing evidence for a case very different than the one they thought they were making. The counter-inquisition helps them to make that case. If racism drives its victims to extremes of crime and violence, doesn’t that tell us something about the limited self-control those victims are capable of and make some form of separation seem requisite? If women can’t co-exist with men in public spaces without constantly falling victim to all manner of sexual assault, shouldn’t rigorous regulation of sexual relations, to the point of not allowing unmarried individuals of different sexes to be alone, be put in place? No, the answer will be, we just need to stop white privilege and toxic masculinity. But where is the boundary between white privilege and plain old whiteness, between toxic masculinity and the new and improved non-toxic alternative? Not only is drawing a line here impossible because of the basic incoherence of the categories, but it’s undesirable because it would inhibit further movement, which is to say, it would block the flow of power, undermining the very purpose of these categories in the first place. If the inquisitor stays with you up until this point, there is nothing left to do other than lay out the fundamental imperatives of power. A rough description of the good white and the good male might be offered up, and that will be their way of telling you exactly what they mean to do to you. But things can be kept interesting here—if the white is good in this way, can we imagine some other ways this goodness might lead him to end up less good? Is this way of being good applicable in all situations? We can game out a few possibilities. Will the detoxified male ever end up making any babies? Running any businesses? Building anything? Protecting anyone? The end game here is to elicit a description of the mode of rule that will keep all this in place—when and where could we expect to see deviations, and what kind of interventions will be carried out? How would signs of white privilege or toxic masculinity in the 3 year-old be identified, and how would they be extirpated?

Infiltration and deconstruction is just preliminary work. The result is shattered relations, but relations, or at least possible relations, nevertheless. The next step is to turn the curses of the center into blessings. The egalitarian grid produces a caricature of real differences, but those differences can then be shrunk down to proper size and put back into normal shape. Let’s take the current panacea of “consent” as the just response to sexual harassment and assault. “Consent” can only emerge as a concept once relations between the sexes are abstracted from their embedment within familial, community and state structures. Once sex is no longer restricted to marriage, and marriage is no longer a means to consolidate the community through the formation of alliances and the meeting of obligations, the individual, now on a “marriage market” (however tightly regulated), has a choice of partners. That’s the first “consent.” Every expansion of “consent” is therefore an expansion of the marriage market and its gradual deregulation. At a certain point the marriage market just becomes a sex market—marriage is just another relation one is free to choose or reject. The liberal story is that all this happens because people want freedom; the real story is central power using sexual choice to demolish one intermediary institution after another. It’s allies in this have been feminists, of course, but even more, “rogue males,” who, no longer fearing retribution from the families of wronged women or any communal strictures at all, embody in their persons contempt for moral restraint, stopping short only (unless they are powerful enough to feel immune) of the kind of violence that would count as assault or battery (or worse) under other conditions. Celebrity culture has been based on the freedom of rogue males, who are provided access to women who are ready to sacrifice anything to be the center of attention. As the feminist-socialist Barbara Ehrenreich noted many years ago, the real beneficiaries of the sexual revolution were the playboys.  But once the damage is done, and the tilt of the playing field revealed, it is impossible to imagine redressing any acts of violence other than through continual modifications of the terms of “consent,” new means of enforcement, i.e., new power structures, that will inevitably be more arbitrary and incoherent than the ones we started with. Consent itself, we must recognize, is nothing but an artifact of power relations; if there’s a sexual market, those with more to give in terms of money and celebrity, or even proximity to some marginal form of power, will inevitably demand more in terms of “favors.” Does this represent “consent”? We won’t know until after the fact—the case can never be closed, because the reciprocal power relations will always be shifting.

Now, it’s very helpful to have such an analysis of “consent,” but as I’ve been suggesting arguing the point this directly is a waste of time. Rather than saying that “consent” is wrong, an illusion, absurd, a mask for power, etc.–or, as a better way of not so much saying as indicating all that—“consent” should be constructed as a palimpsest underneath which we can read the forms of the structured reciprocities and hierarchies that would order sexuality in a well governed community. Every way in which women are made vulnerable under contemporary conditions (and today’s feminists are very good at laying all this out) indicates forms of institutional protection that women, on the admission of their most fervent defenders, need. All of the forms of abuse men are capable of, likewise, indicate guardrails and restraints that even anti-feminist, traditionalist men will acknowledge men need. But if women need those protections, they must also follow the rules entailed by those protections; and if men need those restraints, they must also be given the freedom of action that would give meaning to those restraints. Accountability must be made to fit power at each point along the line. We can then extrapolate the mode of sovereignty proper to the entire set-up. In the end, we can even redeem the concept of “consent,” as the transparency of the nature of the sexual bond revealed in the requisite arrangements. How could one want it otherwise?

We could conduct very similar analyses with regard to relations between national and ethnic groups. Simply listening very carefully to what the most committed black activists say about white racism will reveal to us, once we learn how to surface the written over text, the healthiest relations we can imagine between the two groups today. Simply listening to Jews pointing out instances of antisemitism will work in the same way—it is never obvious what is going to count as “mistreatment” or “prejudice,” and certainly not what the hierarchy of complaints about mistreatment or prejudice is to be, and the fact that virtually every organized Jewish group sees the safety of Jews as implicated in the continuance of open door immigration and refugee policies (and sees antisemitism as at the very least lurking behind opposition to such policies) is enormously informative. The situation is different in inter-group than sexual relations because in the former cataclysmic “solutions” are possible that are unimaginable in the latter, but the whole point is to create inevitably unequally distributed constraints that ensure things don’t get to that point. Minority complaints are to be read and reiterated as desperate pleas that the majority, normal culture be placed more securely at the center. The real resentment is against a weakened center which can no longer assure the centrality of the normative, and that’s a resentment we’re glad to redress. Perhaps we all do agree, after all.

Sovereign Resentments

All talk of centrality must come around to being talk of resentment as well. In Gans’s account of the originary scene, resentment kicks in immediately after the center is secured through the issuance of the originary sign. Mimetic desire leads to the crisis; resentment comes in its wake, as the center now forbids us from satisfying our desire for the object located there. Resentment becomes a moral and political factor with the ascension of the Big Man, who occupies the center and thereby becomes a resentment attractor. All modes of centrality from here on in are modeled on the Big Man, that is, human centrality. All resentment is directed at someone who has usurped, or prevented us from occupying, “our” center. Others don’t recognize your accomplishments, your potential, the real significance of your actions, your true character, etc.—all resentment towards someone (some other center) interfering with your centrality. But not all resentments are created equal: surely some deserve recognition and others don’t. Who decides, though? Power—the mode of centrality that confers recognition. But that, in turn, means that all resentment is really of power—it is power that allows one to go unrecognized, power who recognizes the one who is less worthy than you. Resentment constitutes a “power imaginary”: a representation of the “good center” that would provide me with the recognition due me. If what you really want is that mode of power, though, you should adopt its resentments towards those who have or would usurp it. That’s a very good way of transcending your own resentments, because you would then have to realize that the mode of power you desire doesn’t, in fact, have to recognize your centrality, at least not as you imagine it—if you continue to desire it anyway, you may be wrong politically but you at least have a chance of discovering what is right, because you have become interested in power securing itself.

Addressing resentments is the responsibility of the power center within whose orbit that resentment has been shaped. The first obligation of the center is to contain the resentments within its sphere. This is done by creating vehicles for shaping and directing that resentment: the justice system is such a vehicle. It would be wrong to think about resentment as spontaneous—there will always be resentment, but there is no pre-social, natural form of resentment. Resentment is always shaped by power. If we think we have been treated “unequally,” it is because our legal and political system forces us to think in terms of “equality”; if we think someone has failed to do their duty toward us, it is because “duty” is the coin of the moral and political realm. In other words, power judges us in terms of “equality” or “duty.” The best framing is the one that unites power and accountability, that gives everyone the power to do what they are obliged to do—in other words, absolutist framing. That makes it possible for resentment to be directed towards some power/accountability misfit, the repair of which is always possible for the occupant of the power center (or, perhaps, the illusory appearance of a misfit can be corrected for). New ways of framing resentments generate new resentments, because the center now offers a new target, so this work of suturing power and accountability can never come to an end.

These reflections were inspired, in part, by Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State: A Study in the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX. Jones seeks (successfully, as far as I can see) to show that the French kingdom under St. Louis recognized neither a “separation of Church and State,” and therefore no conflict between them, nor “sovereignty,” in the sense of a single source of power and a legitimate monopoly on violence. What the sacramental kingdom did recognize is the “business of the peace and the faith,” a business carried on collaboratively by all the power centers of society. Categories like “heresy” and “rebellion” pointed to a single nexus of social unrest that needed to be bound up with the peace and faith of the realm. According to Jones, while the category of “sovereignty” presupposes the primacy of division, conflict and violence, and hence the need to concentrate power in a single source, the sacramental order presupposes the primacy of peace, with conflict and violence seen as aberrations—in which case, power is essentially reactive to breaches of the peace and faith, and can be carried out by any responsible agent—even a tavern owner. There are conflicts over jurisdiction, but the king does decide on these conflicts, even sometimes deciding against himself and ceding the right to punish to a lower power center. (Not to quibble at this point, but whoever has the responsibility to punish, settle a quarrel, or forgive is given the power and fully authorized to do so, which seems to me the essence of sovereignty. But I’ll set the terminological question aside for now, while conceding that Jones is right in terms of historical usage, so the usefulness of “sovereignty” and  “absolutism” will have to be shown to override precedent.)

What I am trying to do here, then, is resituate the sacramental order on anthropological grounds. The sign and the center, the form of peace, precede resentment, the source of violence, so there is a helpful symmetry between the two approaches. The crucial distinction here is between resentments framed in terms of the system of justice and those which refuse that system; or, more broadly, between those willing to have their resentments framed and those who insist upon unbounded resentments. The latter must be attacked as heresy and rebellion. But if not in the name of the true faith, then in what name? (I don’t mean to object to a sovereignty based on faith, just to develop an anthropological model that would transcend any specific sacramental order.) I make a demand of the center—that my own centrality, such as it is, be recognized. In making this demand, I imagine a power center that would recognize at its true worth my centrality, the absoluteness and power of my request in the terms of that power center itself; in the process, I concede that the power center might estimate my worth differently than I do. Hence, I end up decentering myself, and reformulating my demand to the center to one that justice be done, regardless of its consequences for myself. In making this demand I restructure my own centrality so that I might be recognized as one willing to do the bidding of the power center. I take on the resentments of that power center. This reciprocal relation continues, and is continually restructured as new imperatives from the center realign its centrality and my own. New obligations emerge, to my fellow “centers,” who mediate my relationship to the power center. Insofar as the power center keeps remediating these relationships, I imagine the power center itself recognizing a higher mode of centrality, one that I can pray it consults. It is in the name of that higher mode of centrality that we can identify heresy and rebellion. For now, we can consider that higher mode of centrality the imperative to continue to aim our frames for resentment lower, that is, detect resentments and turn them into tributes to and tributaries of the center at ever more preliminary stages.

Resentment runs as deep as desire, which is to say it constitutes humanness. We must always have faith in and resent challenges to the center that grants us our centrality. Resentment is a discovery procedure—what we call disinterestedness or objectivity is resentment on behalf of, or donated to, some center with which we engage in imperative exchange. The social order, then, is built out of donated resentments—which also means that all subversion directs the flow of resentments out of their established channels, into anarchist fantasies generating demands that resist integration into a sovereign structure. Structured resentment becomes love: that on whose behalf I resent I also want to protect from my own resentment, which is to say the conversion of my own desire into demands for centrality. Love is ceding centrality to the other. And anything named by sovereign resentment can be treated as a center, and loved accordingly. The beloved is an endless source of names. This means that the source of rights, as granted by a particular power center within a specific history of settling resentments, is what one has loved well. Jones talks about “use” over time as a source of rights—the noble might drive some peasants who have been using wood from his forests off his land, but if those peasants complain and claim that they have been using that wood for generations the magistrate might agree with them and see the lord’s eviction of them as “violent,” regardless of his own claims to have had the property in his family’s possession since before recorded time. Proper use, i.e., love, overrides title deeds, which represent just one piece of evidence in any dispute, not the deciding one.

Love and resentment articulate the relations between centrality, power and sovereignty. The test of true love and resentment on behalf of is found in language. We can always start with the “I want…” implicit or explicit in every utterance, and trace it back to the absolute imperative it obeys—who told you to want that, and how were you told? What have you done with that imperative along the way (what questions have you converted it into, and what would acceptable answers be)? Everything we say leaves tracks of this process of assimilating imperatives into desires. And if we follow those tracks we can bring our desires into closer alignment with higher imperatives. A good way of putting liberalism through the wood-chipper is to displace resentful questions regarding rights and their violations, inequalities and their masks, and to simply ask, what would be the best thing for everyone here? It’s interesting that liberalism tends to make such a question seem like a joke—imagine, in the middle of a court case, the lawyers, judge, plaintiff and defendant just gathering together and trying to figure out what’s really the right thing to do. Even if they could all agree separately, the situation compels them to disagree as forcefully as possible. Asking why we want what we want and how wanting that embeds us in a containable structure of resentment is a way to start normalizing such questions. And normalizing such questions is the path toward securing sovereignty.