January 15, 2019

The Declarative Order and Inquiry

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:14 pm

If declarative sentences are inquiries into imperatives, it is also through declarative sentences that we engage in inquiries into declarative sentences. We can hypothetically construct any sentence as asking, regarding a particular imperative, what are the conditions of its fulfillment? An inquiry into declaratives would, then, address the question, how might we simultaneously hypothesize the conditions of fulfillment of imperatives that are preconditions of or consequences of, some primary imperative? To say, “John is not here,” is to answer (most likely) the actual or anticipated question, “is John here?”; to answer that question with “I haven’t heard from John since last night” is to broaden the scope of the questions one is answering—one provides information not only regarding John’s whereabouts but an expected follow-up question regarding my usefulness as a source for tracking John’s movements. The sentence is, correspondingly, significantly more complex.

This kind of declarative self-reflexivity is intrinsic to language, and there’s no doubt such sentences are common in oral cultures. More abstract and sustained inquiries into the possibilities of declarative sentences are only possible in a literate culture, though. The very concept of a “sentence” is only possible in a literate culture, which can isolate the sentence as a unit of speech, settle upon rules for using them properly, and devise various stylistic alternatives for their deployment. In a literate culture, then, the range of imperatives, and imperative chains, that can be accounted for intellectually increases dramatically. So, if “where is John?” is a “softened” version of “show me John,” what the declarative allows for here is an avoidance of the violence likely to follow from one insisting, through sheer lack of linguistic resources, that John be produced immediately. Likewise, the more complex “I haven’t heard from John since last night” allows me to demonstrate that I am sympathetic to your attempt to locate John, thereby forestalling, for example, your concluding that I’m lying and commencing a search of my premises or some more violent approach. Of course, I could be lying about when I heard from John, but my answer already sets up a relation between two different scenes, so if you want to further challenge me you might have to implicate other witnesses or imagine possible scenarios. Again, this allows for deferral.

If I say, “like you, I haven’t heard from him since last night,” I introduce yet another scene. This is essentially what declarative and cultural complex entails: being able to keep various scenes, past, present and future, completed and still ongoing, within our power to change and beyond our power, etc., suspended simultaneously and interdependently. When we’re talking, reading or writing, or thinking, this is what we are doing it about: whether each of those scenes holds together, and whether each scene supplies what some other scene requires for it to hold together. Each of these scenes has an ostensive-imperative articulation at its center: the “like you” in the hypothetical sentence above imagines a scene upon which I received information that I think is true regarding your latest contact with John (if I haven’t heard this from you, I’m presupposing another scene in which someone found this out from you in order to convey it to me; and, either way, another scene upon which you heard from John). Upon that scene, John was referenced (a “simulated” ostensive sign), and this reference carried along with it an imperative to find out more about John’s whereabouts. If you now tell me that I’m misinformed, and you haven’t heard from John for days, something happens to the entire structure of interdependent scenes, even if it’s not obvious what.

Now, there must be a dialectic relation between a discursive order that allows for the articulation of all these suspended and delayed scenes and a power structure that allows for predictable suspensions and delays. I don’t think there’s any point to trying to determine empirical correspondences between intellectual complexity and social order: in the midst of a social breakdown, one lone scholar, with a good library or excellent memory, can lock himself away and write an extremely intricate history of the decline of that social order. The real point, though, is that in doing so, that scholar presupposes and embeds in his history the possibility of a social order that would allow for a series of suspensions and delays that would have indefinitely deferred that social breakdown. Even if the history presents the social breakdown as inevitable, it presupposes the possibility of something that will break down, but hasn’t yet; or, the possibility of another order less affected by the very vulnerabilities the “inevitablist” history has shown. We can’t imagine dispersion through interconnection without presupposing a center. If I am going to figure out whether it matters that the scenic series that led me to say “like you” has collapsed, I can only do so by assuming a shared “(disciplinary”) inquiry into John’s whereabouts (all our sentences and questions are leading us back to the imperative to enable us to ostensively refer to John), even if part of that inquiry might now include a subsidiary inquiry into whether some of those who should be helping locate John are in fact interfering with the search.

A large part of the stupidity of liberalism is that we are forbidden to speak as if we are all looking for something together. In my hypothetical scenario, the more we look for John, following the imperative to find him, the more we must involve prior imperatives that are the sources of this one—the imperative that we remain a family, or a group of friends, or a community; in that case, the ostensive sign we issue upon finding John would be a new sign as well as revealing and confirming that older imperative. Behind that imperative, of course, are even older ones: preserve your family, friendships and community, care for others, etc. And even older ones: don’t transgress that the transgression of which will lead to resentments we haven’t the institutional terms to frame. (Or: err in favor of fulfilling your obligations.) The denser and more overlapping these reciprocal horizontal relations the more there must be a center that makes violence (or, at least, open-ended violence that can’t be stemmed) a distant resort when they are tested or frayed. The relationship between margin and center is reciprocal: the more the security of the center can be taken for granted, the less we need to invoke it in our horizontal relations. Declarative order introduces what N.N. Taleb calls “antifragility” by articulating a structure of suspended and delayed scenes that presupposes, while invoking as minimally as possible, an absolute center. (If every interaction leads to someone saying “I’m gonna call the cops,” then we’re living in a social order where the cops aren’t much help.)

The overt and institutionalized study of the declarative sentence is the origin of all the media, themselves extensions and simulations of the originary scene. New media represent scenes enacted in other media, and one way in which that can be done is by using the capabilities of the new media to supplement the meanings lost from the older media. So, to use my prototypical example from David Olson regarding the representation of a speech situation in writing, rather than reporting what the other said in a hesitant or insistent voice, one notes that the other said it “cautiously” or “insistently.” Whatever is lost in the previous medium one tries to replace in the new medium. Part of the method of supplementation is representing the scene of representation itself in terms of the older, or even oldest medium—so, the writer, broadcaster, or actor writes or speaks directly to you, the reader, listener or viewer, insinuating himself into your living room—all of the machinery of the medium, all of which differentiates that medium from a speech situation, are mobilized so as to produce the illusion or “feel” of one. The result is a vast simplification of the scene, and a collapse of all the suspensions and delays. One must obey the order to enter an illusory scene in order to participate in the medium. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if the ruling center makes creating and managing such illusions central to its own governing strategies.

The other approach is to use the declarative capacity to articulate suspensions and delays to represent the suspensions and delays in the media and their institutions. Above, I tried to give a sense of how we could trace a particular imperative, interrogative or declarative, through a series of interdependent scenes—when we watch a movie, TV show, news broadcast, magazine article, etc., a similar, but far more complex process has in most cases occurred—a process probably a lot more interesting and illuminating than the media product itself. We don’t actually need to know what it was, but we do know that the talking head who spouts the day’s talking points has sat in the make-up chair for quite a while that morning, that he got his job because of some connection someone in his family has to someone in that media corporation, that he was herded through a particular journalistic career path by a familiar set of mentors and protectors to whom he is indebted, etc.—and all of this, really, is part of the meaning of whatever he says on the air. The more we describe what he says as entailing all of that (or as much of that as is necessary in a given situation to dissolve the smarmy illusion) the more we disable the supplementations that drape an ideological representation over an institutional one.

Every representation does need to posit some scene upon which all “receiving” the representation are virtually present. In a literate, mediatized order, this scene needs to be a doubled scene, though: the illusions generated by supplementarity must at least be gestured towards in order to construct a scene upon which participants watch the cobbling together of the illusory scene. As I’ve said before, much of this is the legacy of modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, of which contemporary absolutists can be the inheritors if they wish (or dare). A scene sustaining both unity and a maximum of cobbling together is a satirical scene. One place you can always start is with a sentence produced by the institutional, supplementalized representation and simply turn one of its words into a scene—a scene hidden by the representation. For example, institutions are always speaking in contemporary newspeak—the CIA, the FBI, the White House, the UN, etc., are always “saying” things. What are the scenes that go into and are concealed by these attributions? I’m not talking about doing counter-reporting here, uncovering the sources used, etc. (of course, it’s good that people do that—it’s just not what I’m talking about here). I’m talking about having fun, using our imaginations (as the novelist Ronald Sukenick said, if you don’t use your imagination, someone else will use it for you)—fill in gaps (thereby showing that they are gaps) with caricatures and the absurd. The model for this practice is the complex declarative sentence, which can always be made more complex, as something mentioned can always be defined, and then used, and then the conditions under which it has been defined can described, and the implications for the rest of the claims, implicit and explicit, made by the sentence of the various possible definitions explored, and some of those implicit claims made explicit, and the same done for the claims implicit in the newly explicit ones. In this way you represent the authoritative institutions as at least potentially following and defending the absolute imperative to defer.

January 12, 2019

A Unified Field Theory of Victimocracy

Filed under: GA — Q @ 1:06 pm

Eric bases his Unified Field Theory on the Originary Hypothesis, which is so original that it has resisted assimilation to contemporary academic discourse, not to mention popular news or culture. We remain limited to a small corner of the internet (the Anthropoetics website) and our annual conferences. As Eric comments, Generative Anthropology doesn’t articulate the resentments of any particular interest group. It’s a sad comment on academia today that a persuasive theory with important consequences is not recognized because it affirms the value of “firstness” or merit. I read almost everyday about the “myth” of meritocracy. Eric points out that the genius of the left’s attack on “privilege” is that anyone can participate, no matter how successful, by simply acknowledging their “unmerited” position with an apotropaic gesture designed to ward off criticism. But anyone who is white and successful remains vulnerable to attack. Political Correctness benefits certain rhetorically-powerful interest groups, while allowing the current political and economic system to operate almost without check. Conservatives have not yet found an effective rhetoric to counter PC. Who can be against “social justice”? The problem is that PC actually functions counter to its stated goals.

Despite the claims of PC, America is still distinguished by its openness to innovation, talent, and merit of all kinds, irrespective of race, gender, or class. But there are real structural issues that have contributed to the large wealth inequalities in America today, issues that could be profitably addressed at the political level. But the current political climate actually prevents any such constructive efforts, because firstness must be denied.

The current political debate can be derived from the opposition of center and periphery on the Originary Scene. The periphery is defined by equality. Everyone is equal before the firstness of the center, and in the ability to make and exchange the sign. The originary hypothesis explains the fundamental moral intuition that everyone is equal in rights. Studies have demonstrated that children as young as two years old already have a sense of fairness and reciprocity.

The center of the Originary Scene, on the other hand, defends the rights of firstness. One who benefits the group deserves a reward for their work. PC wants to exclude firstness by claiming that any inequality in material situation can only be due to an oppression that denies fundamental equality. This is a Manichean world-view, in which all the benefits of civilization, because they are not distributed equally, become evidence for evil conspiracy. But rewarding merit is actually completely in accord with the principle of moral reciprocity. One is recompensed according to one’s contribution to the community.

I would like to point out that firstness and egalitarianism actually depend upon each other. Egalitarianism is made possible only by firstness, the power of the center to defer conflict. The sacred center reduces everyone on the periphery to the same level. We are all equal before God. The firstness of the center is not reducible to the authority of the alpha male. He acts solely for self-benefit, even if, as Darwin pointed out, his domination indirectly benefits the species as a whole in the long run. But more importantly, no symbolic representation is involved with the alpha male’s position in the group. It was probably not the alpha male who invented the first sign, although he must have imitated the sign of others on the originary scene.

Firstness depends on egalitarianism, as the rights of the community, because a privileged position can be claimed and defended only in terms of its benefit to the group. When Obama said, “you didn’t build that,” he was attacking the privileges accorded to firstness, and ignoring that individuals who invest their lives in a business are rewarded freely according to their benefit to the community

January 8, 2019

More on the Proper Use of Declarative Sentences

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:27 am

Declarative sentences appear to be representations of a reality independent of the speakers, and they are that, indirectly; directly, though, declaratives are inquiries into imperatives. To put it even more narrowly: declaratives are attempts to determine the conditions under which imperatives can be obeyed and fulfilled. Intervening between the imperative and the declarative is the interrogative; an interrogative is a softened imperative, which is to say, an imperative coming to recognize that it might not be fulfilled, and therefore transitioning from a command to do something to a demand for information regarding the possibility of doing it.

From a practical, analytical, perspective, we can first determine what question a declarative sentence might be taken to be answering. In every case, there must be at least two possibilities: a question about the subject, or a question about the predicate. Everything else in a sentence addresses other possible questions. So, to take the hoary old analytic philosophy example, “the cat is on the mat” could be answering either “where is the cat” or “what is on the mat”? “The striped cat is on the mat” includes an answer to the question, “which cat”? These are all requests for information about the cat and/or mat. We should, then be able to treat these requests as “softened” forms of some command regarding cat or mat. Such a command will ultimately be hypothetical, but the hypothesis could be stronger or weaker. Most obviously, here, might be a standing command that the mat be left clean, or that pets be kept off of it; or a direct or anticipated command to produce the cat; or even just to look at my cat.

There is an immense variety of imperatives: commands from superiors, pleas from subordinates, prayers; imperatives that can be fulfilled immediately, imperatives that take time to fulfill, imperatives that are essentially permanent and can never be completely fulfilled (“love the Lord thy God”); single imperatives, imperatives that are one in a long chain, imperatives that, when finally fulfilled, might look very different than the outcome imagined by the original imperator. You can think about how much of everyday life is carried out through imperatives (“pass me the salt, please”), and could not be carried out otherwise. Imperatives involve some direct connection between at least two people; imperatives create a new reality, or fail to. Imperatives are somewhat uncomfortable to talk about, which is maybe why discourse and communications theorists so rarely do so—they always involve doing something under some kind of compulsion, even when it’s the compulsion of pity felt for the homeless man asking for money for a cup of coffee, and therefore seem to infringe on one’s “free will.” So, why do we obey most imperatives? That’s a question that could only be asked under the presumption that declarative discourse is the normal discursive form, and anything else a defective, distorted or abbreviated form of such discourse (as if asking someone to pass the salt is just a simpler way of saying something like “I would be happier if the salt were to be made to appear before me by someone seated presently at this table”). Asking why our presumptive response to imperatives is to obey them is like asking why we share a reality with other people.

A social science that focused solely on how imperatives work in all the varied social situations in which they are used would have an inexhaustible topic that leaves no area of human life unexamined. Furthermore, it would be a social science carved right out of everyday discourse because, as I began this post by stating, all declaratives are already studies of imperatives. Social theory that leads to something like “knowledge” will be one that takes us, through the interrogative route suggested above, through the entire network of imperatives until we get to starting point of each chain. We do things like shopping at a particular store, or buying a particular brand, because someone once told us to, and we obeyed—of course, we are often confronted with multiple imperatives, and we “choose” (a declarative concept) between them by tracing—imperfectly, intuitively—one of them back to a previous, or more comprehensive imperative that we obey (to save money, to balance our budget, to please someone else, to see to our health). To know a person is to know the imperatives governing his life, to hypothesize where they originated, and how they “snowballed” over the years. Similarly when we vote, or follow political events through particular media—we’ve been told, we are constantly being told, to do these things.

When we’re trying to piece together a “logical” discourse, what we’re really trying to do is make all the imperatives present to us consistent with each other. This is what “thinking,” that is, having one declarative sentence follow another with which it is in a reciprocally dependent relation, involves. Moral failures like hypocrisy and discrepancies between declared principles and actual practices are failures to make the imperatives we obey consistent with each other. A “good” society is simply one where imperatives issued and “heard” at various levels—imperatives issued by rulers and their delegates, and imperatives transmitted through traditions—are consistent with each other, where individuals are not constantly forced into double binds wherein they have to obey equally authoritative but incompatible imperatives.

We therefore have a method of inquiry that can start anywhere, with any utterance, and follow through from there to an account of the entire imperative order. Any utterance that gets us thinking because it is anomalous in some way—or, more simply, we can see no way to either defy or fulfill it—can be the place where we stake out a disciplinary space; or, more precisely, make explicit an already implicit disciplinary space. This is an open-ended and endlessly recursive inquiry, because once you cut through a path of imperatives leading us to the sovereign’s activation of a traditional practice, you can see there were innumerable other paths that might have gotten you there. If we’re all agreed that we want to make imperatives consistent with each other, there is a broad basis of agreement within which all kinds of productive disagreements can be hosted. We can start with a single sentence, taken as a representative sample of a larger discourse, or with what seems to be patterns of sentences that all seem to be answering a related set of questions.

So, we work back through sentences, to the questions we take them to be answering, to the imperatives whose fulfillment depends upon the information sought by the questions. What could we do with the information provided in the sentences that we couldn’t do without that information—how is fulfilling a consistent stream of imperatives now more possible? We then work on declarative sentences that would test out possible attempts to obey those imperatives—i.e., thought experiments. The thought experiments reach forward in time—once those imperatives are fulfilled, or fail to be, what imperatives might follow?—and backward: what previous imperatives, successful or failed, are the ones under inspection successors or subsidiaries to? If we want to make imperatives consistent, we should start with inconsistent imperatives, and imagine scenes upon which someone might be confronted by them. Make the scene as difficult as possible: failure to obey both imperatives would be devastating, while the two imperatives are as incompatible as imaginable. Go back as far as possible into the past, and see if even such divergent imperatives might have a common ancestor; construct possible consequences, and imagine how they might nevertheless have a common destination.

A successful imperative yields a new ostensive. If I ask someone to pass the salt, once the salt is in my hands, the imperative has been completed. If I obey the command to love the Lord my God with all my might, I can put forth signs that I am doing so—the way I treat someone in a particular situation, my refraining from exploiting an opportunity in an unscrupulous manner, etc., might all be such signs—there is an ostensive component to all of them. The ostensive is the “eating” in which we find the “proof of the pudding.” This is the kind of thing a disciplinary space is interested in—what counts as a sign that an imperative has been completed? How do we distinguish genuine charity from a self-interested simulation of it? There can never be a universally applicable rule here, if for no other reason than because if there were a charlatan would learn how to meet all the “requirements” and carry out his fraud in a manner that we will have agreed to overlook. We have nothing but the thought experiment, hypothesizing regarding the imperative being obeyed and the possible ways of fulfilling and failing to fulfill it. We keep looking for slighter and slight differences—we learn to notice more and more differences, more ways in which the line between genuine charity and fakery might be drawn. We keep generating new ostensives, what we call concepts, because they are hypothetical ostensives telling us what to look for. Most imperatives will fall somewhere between “pass the salt” and “love the Lord thy God with all your might.”

In this post I am obeying the imperative to provide potential ostensives that might mark some of the distinctions I have made in articulating what I have been calling the “imperative order.” I write an account of the imperative order, and questions about how to follow the imperative to use this concept occur to me; trying to imagine ways of answering these questions lead me back to the imperative that lead me to that concept (or potential ostensive) in the first place: to develop theoretical alternatives to liberalism, which always leads us back to flaccid and useless voluntaristic concepts which don’t really provide potential ostensives (how does one prove oneself a “free individual”?). Further imperatives come embedded in generative anthropology, to generate a vocabulary of social theory completely made up of terms internal to the originary hypothesis; we could say these imperatives have been forwarded by earlier versions of myself, commanding my future theoretical self to take on this task, which itself iterates a broader imperative intrinsic to social theory itself—to generate a new theoretical vocabulary independent of “spontaneous” and “commonsensical” (“doxical”) thinking. But more recent imperatives within the human sciences, finding the field of potential ostensives generated by such meta-languages to be drying up have issued what might be a complementary imperative, to construct self-consistent vocabularies that can generate potential ostensives while remaining intra-linguistically within those spontaneous and commonsensical vocabularies (which, after all, also embed traditions that may not be exhausted), working reciprocally and pedagogically with them not as a sacrifice of rigor but precisely in order to be more rigorous—to extend the field of potential ostensives to include those anyone might see. The imperative to develop an originary grammar is a convergence of all these imperatives, because what could simultaneously be more intuitively accessible to any speaker of any language, and at the same time capable of prodigious abstraction, than the fact that we are always exchanging ostensives, imperatives, interrogatives and declaratives, and nothing else? And if we pursue this further, we will see that I, like everyone else, want my actions to be consistent with each other, want (follow the imperative) to “cleanse” myself of anthropomorphisms, of invented “faculties” that license my finding all of myself nowhere else than in myself—there are lots of post-literate imperatives here, which go back to a history of reading, and very often of trying to understanding very difficult texts by trying to figure out what they are “telling me to do.” (Reading a difficult literary or philosophical text as a list of instructions for reconstructing yourself is very instructive.) (And, of course, there may be imperatives of which one is sometimes more, sometimes less, aware, such as to do something difficult and even counter-intuitive, and which hasn’t been done before.) At a certain point, a particular path of inquiry becomes less compelling and more obscure (no one wants to know what I was reading in 1991, and how I was reading it), and most importantly, become less likely to lead us back to more ancestral and central imperatives.

January 1, 2019

Discipline and Debt

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:19 am

The Big Man, in archaic social orders, becomes big by out-gifting his competitors. This out-gifting must be understood not simply as giving out goods, but as including “services,” and above all the service of “leadership.” The Big Man renders everyone dependent upon him, entirely for “merit-based” reasons, and this is a debt which can never be paid back. Out-gifting others therefore becomes a model for the initial power differential. The Big Man’s occupation of the center is always precarious, though—his capacity for distribution can lapse, or be out-done by some new competitor. Making the occupation of the center permanent, then, would require always already having given unrepayable gifts—such a gift must be cosmogonic, i.e., mediating between the cosmos and the community, providing for the good will of the gods, as manifested in sufficient rainfall, prey animals, protection from other communities, etc. This is sacral kingship, which is itself unstable due to the variability of all those conditions which are not, in fact, under the ritual control of the king. No matter how large the territories over which the sacred king rules, these conditions provide at least a residue of fragility—even if the king’s gift is making the Nile flow and sustain all of Egypt, it’s always possible that the Nile will dry up. Still, at a certain point, sacred kingship can provide itself with substantial hedges against being “refuted” by the cosmos.

These hedges also minimize the degree of testing to which the competence of the ruler is subjected to. He delegates, and since those to whom power is delegated are less secure in their positions, which is to say, have fewer hedges, they must be more competent—and more competent means obligating their subordinates in the manner of the Big Man. The king must at least be minimally competent enough to assess the competency of his subordinates—incompetence past a point would introduce instability at the top. Meanwhile, the more his subordinates are able to hedge against reverses in conditions that might undermine their power, the more they are able to target their mode of obligating their subordinates in coercive, rather than reciprocal ways. The most effective way of doing so would be to indebt them monetarily—indebtedness beyond the ability to repay, assuming that repayment can be enforced, is tantamount to slavery—and, eventually, becomes more than “tantamount to.” The introduction of money in the ancient world was first of all aimed at creating such a relationship between individuals bound to local communities with their own hierarchies and the imperial order, which required vast manpower for productive and military purposes. And the capacity to indebt and enslave entails a corresponding decline in the need for competence, which is to say, reciprocal, asymmetrical, obligation.

We can then see the periodic debt forgiveness in the ancient world (the “jubilee”), and the ultimately eschatological significance such forgiveness took on in the Axial Age religions in terms of the need to restore competency and clarity in the chains of command—as opposed, as its contemporary theorists tend to assume, to embodying some revolutionary, anarchic impulse (although, no doubt, such fantasies were often generated as well). What debt, and ultimately money, do, in other words, is represent hedges against direct accountability on that part of those in power—direct accountability, that is, to some competent (in the sense given above) superior. Those who can’t do, issue money and create debts. Of course, then, managing money and debts becomes something one can become competent in. Competence in this field is in that case a marker of the insecurity of the central authority. To the extent that total skunkworks is unattainable (or, at least, unattained), hedges against direct accountability will be created, and money competence will emerge to “measure” that.

The increasingly popular argument by Michael Hudson (, upon which David Graeber’s argument depends, is that the Axial Age religions were really revolts against enslaving debt, in favor of restoring (or radicalizing?) the Jubilee Year of debt forgiveness. All that stuff about sin, repentance and eternal life is really a revision by the power mongers once Christianity (for example) became a state religion—that is, it becomes about making the poor accountable, rather than the rich. Anarchism must reject the claim that social hierarchies allow for the emergence of differentiated competencies: that some individuals can be closer to the center than others makes it possible to discover all kinds of new ways in which one can be closer to the center. But anarchists must also project back a modern egalitarian morality to the archaic, which is to say to elide the necessary relation between the community and a center. Debt is not simply imposed on a debt free “primitive communist” community, any more than kingship is simply imposed on a non-hierarchical order: as Graeber himself shows in On Kingship, “egalitarian” communities are in fact governed by the most rigid and demanding other-worldly hierarchies; similarly, the central object always obligates the community. The individual who occupies the center doesn’t create the center—to believe so is to throw us back into the most naïve Enlightenment accusations against “priests” as “tricking” the people. The logic of sacrifice needs to be broken, regardless of the need to restrain or abolish “predatory debt”—Graeber seems to be aware of this, to some extent, as his very ambivalent relation to Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory in On Kingshipseems to indicate.

Money is invented to distribute to soldiers away from home who need to purchase goods since they are themselves bereft of productive capacities, and markets are established to provide the soldiers with something to buy. But buy for what? You didn’t just buy a steak and bring it home to fire up on the grill; you bought goods to bring to the communal sacrifice. We can assume every meal was communal, and therefore sacrificial. A strict division of loot would be carried out according to merit, with Achilles getting the most and others in accord with their past and expected contributions; the distribution of money would probably also be done differentially, but would already involve a derogation from the straightforward recognition of merit by an accountable leader. We can already see some hedging here. It is the derogation from competence represented by debt and money that encourages fantasies of a complete abolition of debt, obligation, and servitude in an apocalyptic revelation. We can see two tendencies here: on the one side, a more orderly sacrificial process, integrated into a more complex economic and social order, regulated by an increasingly conceptually sophisticated justice system; on the other side, an all-against-one recrudescence of scapegoating. The scapegoating would emerge more readily among the poor, who have less interest in preserving the imperial system, but such tendencies would be encouraged by sections of the elite—perhaps in the name of restoring competence, perhaps in the name of resisting such restoration. Meanwhile, among the elites criticisms of a necessarily improvised and “distorted” justice system would emerge, generating intellectual models of more “cosmic” forms of justice. These contending models both open intellectual space for questioning the sacrificial system and generate resentments that can be used for intensifying it.

This Gordian knot can only be cut by discrediting scapegoating through the exposure of the bad faith of trying to purify the community by excising some offending member. And this exposure can only be accomplished by individuals knowingly occupying potentially violent centers—that is, individuals who develop a new kind of “competency,” that of eliciting and attracting the resentments of those who wish the mimetic sources of their desire to remain occluded. These are first of all prophets, saints and martyrs, but as the threshold for dangerous mimetic violence is raised, such dispositions become more widely distributed, and are simply “morality.” Now, the Hudson-Graeber position is worth keeping in mind here, because money and debt are no doubt bound up in the question of morality. Once sacrificial logic is broken (or, to the extent that it is broken, or, more pessimistically, weakened sufficiently for us to proceed beyond its specter), we can examine systematically the relation between competencies and money as a relation between ordered and at least somewhat disordered imperative orders. What is moral is to determine what each is capable of doing, and to give to each the means of fulfilling the task—and to protect each—to stand in the breach for each—against sniping, undercutting, bluffing, addition of new, unworkable demands, and so on. This morality holds both for those who are capable of much and those who are capable of little, however much it will be manifested differently in each case. Judgments regarding money and debt will therefore be moral, in this sense: they might, immorally, be used to inflate the hedge against the deposition of the incompetent by expanding indebtedness and dispossession; or, they can be used to make visible, measure and minimize the hedges already there, by privileging competence over further hedging wherever possible.

In the contemporary world, we clearly see both tendencies in abundance. The connection between debt, globalism and victimary politics examined by Eric Gans in his first two and final “Unified Field Theory” Chronicles exposes this nexus of incompetence, debt expansion, dispossession and scapegoating very well. The movement on the other side is toward sovereignty, borders, protection of competencies from political contravention, the re-establishment of distinctions between moral and criminal behavior—new, nationalist economic models, privileging productivity over finance, correspond to this movement. Continued movement in that direction depends upon a widening recognition that liberalism has become incompatible with competence, in any field—to maintain competent practices you must either insulate yourself from liberalism or pay it ransom. This will become unsustainable and people will have to choose. It will be helpful to develop an economic theory that posits clear chains of commands and disciplinary spaces as the source of value.

December 25, 2018

Distribution from the Center

Filed under: GA — adam @ 6:41 am

I’ve been overlooking the most obvious and (materially) important thing the center does: distribute. Examining the way all distribution is from the center will take us a long way towards addressing all kinds of economic questions: it all becomes a question of what, exactly, is being distributed. On the originary scene, we assume a roughly equal distribution of the central object. Everyone who has issued the sign gets a piece. But why should this be the case? Why couldn’t one or more members of the group get shoved aside once a symmetrical relation to the center has been established through the sign—say, one or two particularly weak or non-contributing members of the group, who pose no threat to anyone, and therefore were less important than others in addressing the danger created by the mimetic crisis? I think the answer is that the event could only be remembered and repeated if equivalence between issuing the sign and being a member of the group is absolute. If it turns out, in the midst of the sparagmos, that one or more members who participated in emitting the sign were closed off from consumption, the pre-human pecking order will have been reintroduced into the new human group (or violence will erupt again), meaning that the “humanization” of the group has failed to “take.”

But this still doesn’t mean everyone gets an identical piece. It would be impossible for us to determine exactly what that means now, much less for those eating together on the originary scene. We must assume an at least minimal hierarchy on the originary scene—a hierarchy now mediated by the use of the sign, which I assume must be flashed repeatedly in the course of the sparagmos. The stronger member will defer to the weaker member, but as the stronger to the weaker, just as the weaker defers to the stronger as the stronger. In this new situation there will be enough uncertainty about who, in the total scheme of things (the alpha having been displaced), is actually “stronger,” and by how much, to allow for a balance to emerge. We could call this a spontaneous emergence of order, but, in fact, it is the sign, continually pointing to the center, which allows for the portions to be “allocated.” The center is the source of distribution, and the proof of this is that when the originary scene is formalized as ritual, the distribution most approximating total inclusion, that is, pre-established “equal” pieces, will be adhered to—with any exceptions being due to special functions any particular member plays in the ritual. The group itself must assume and insist that apportionment is determined by the center. What matters most is that inclusion in the group—even of a member despised or mocked—is beyond all question. The most terrible consequences of liberal individualism come from the destruction of this assumption that all individuals, before all else, have their entire existence within the group.

Once a human occupies the center, distribution is determined by the central authority. At this point, equal distribution is no longer a consideration. The central authority will distribute in accord with merit and loyalty. This also means that possession of what has been distributed will be contingent upon continued shows of merit and loyalty. The most skilled hunter might get the largest share of the game for himself and his family or tribe; the bravest warrior will likewise receive goods and honors commensurate with his significance. Over time these “aristocrats” will become centers of distribution themselves. I will assume that it is first of all subsequent to conquest that land will be distributed among the conquerors, in accord with rank and contribution to the war effort.

This is all unproblematic as long as sacral kingship holds, which is to say as long as there is no differentiation between the occupant of the center and the subsistent center (corresponding to the central object on the scene, and what keeps the center the center once the object has been consumed). Tribute comes into the central authority, which is simultaneously the ritual center, and is distributed from there. Differentiation between the two modalities of the center sets in with the discrediting of sacrificial practices, which is to say practices which assumed a moral correspondence between tribute flowing to the center and distribution flowing out from it. Once an exchange between what is given to the center, and the benefits in life one receives can no longer be believed in, the occupant of the center and the subsistent center must be made commensurable again. This is the yet unsolved problem of humanity.

The first attempt to solve the problem is through the concept of “justice,” one of the first concepts explored by the first discipline to liberate itself from the sacral order, philosophy. Justice: each gets his due. Unmoored from a juridical system relying on precedents and limited to questions of property damage (which would include crimes like murder and rape), the concept immediately becomes unworkably complicated. This is also the condition of possibility of imperium in imperio—the measure of a good ruler is that he acts justly, preserves justice, which means that a ruler who does not do so is not a “genuine” ruler. “Justice” is the subsistent center, to which the occupant of the center is subordinated. How many rulers have been overthrown, how many failed attempts at overthrowing rulers have been made, in the name of justice? The assumption, though, is still that distribution comes from the center: justice is the distribution to each of his due, whatever that means and however it is to be determined. What is being distributed here is not something possessed by the recipient; rather, it is access to a mode of decision making, a recognition of something like a “right” subsisting in the claimant in the justice system.

The new philosophical, theological and legal disciplines study “justice,” and the rulers are dependent on their conceptual constructs. Those conceptual constructs are inherently divisive, unlike strictly prescribed ritual distribution, because each player within the social order can articulate the conceptual order to his advantage (such concepts enable one to be conscious of this possibility)—this is possible because the real content of these conceptual orders is the possibility of extracting rights from the sovereign. All subsequent disciplines, all the human sciences, from political economy to sociology to anthropology even, I would say, seemingly unrelated disciplines like psychology fit the same pattern. They are all constructing entities, groups, subjects, categories of belonging, that can be managed by and activated to make demands on the center. The post-literate order more or less coincides with the post-sacral order, and these disciplines are constructed in accord with the logic I’ve been exploring in my posts on the disciplines: supplementations of speech acts required so as to make writing a simulation of speech are turned into nominalizations which then designate entities, ultimately mental (even the most “materialistic” disciplines, like economics, are ultimately comprised of mental entities, like “choice,” “utility,” “value,” etc.) that can be the recipients of the rights distributed by the center. Even a state law for institutionalizing the mentally disabled will be constructed in terms of the “right” to treatment of the patient and the “right” to protection of society. The disciplines are essentially studies into the simulacra known as “rights”—what they are, what they entail, who can have them, who decides on their implementation, etc. We are still really within the frame of “justice.” Goods and property are no longer distributed by the center; various kinds of rights to access, or compete for access, to goods and property are distributed (of course these rights translate more or less directly into actual goods—the indirectness offers lots of wiggle room to sovereign and activist players alike).

The demand for autonomy explicitly made by the bearer of rights is therefore a demand for greater centralization. This is the major paradox of the mature liberal order, and at least a part of the cause of all its major dysfunctions. So, in a post-sacral order, what, other than rights, is there for the central authority to distribute, and to do so in a way complemented by the subsistent center? I think the most radical break with liberal utilitarianism is necessary here, and we have to say that what the center distributes is opportunities to make a complete donation of oneself to the subsistent center. There are only two possibilities that follow from the abolition of the imperative exchange of the sacrificial order: the endless struggle between claimants for ever more obscure rights, i.e., “justice”; or, replacing the donation of a part of your property to the deity in exchange for continued life, health and prosperity, with a complete donation of all that you are to whatever is “highest,” or most central. What this entails is something I have discussed many times: embedding the commands of the occupant of the center in all social practices. There is a constitutive gap between the command given and the command obeyed: self-donation entails the effort to enhance the consistency of the command given with the command obeyed—you could say, to make the command better than it is while ensuring it is a form of obedience that would be recognized by the occupant of the center as obedience to the command he has issued. The human sciences, then, are transformed into studies of imperatives from the center, tracing them back to earlier imperatives, speculating regarding possible imperatives, hypothesizing regarding the extension of present imperatives into networks of future ones.

The full donation of one’s self to the subsistent center is demanding—not everyone will be equally capable (everyone will be somewhat capable). But once we have dispensed with “rights” and “justice,” except for within very sharply circumscribed settings, authority can be distributed in accord with evidence of self-donation. This is not mere self-sacrifice—it’s not a question of placing someone who gives all of his possessions to charity, or can refrain from proscribed actions more consistently than others in charge of important institutions, by virtue of those “sacrifices” alone. Demonstrations of self-donation involve some clarification of the imperative order, some “competency” in translating the commands of central authority into sustainable practices. Nor is this a matter of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” which is just a modification of “justice.” Those granted more authority will also be rewarded, because the rewards include greater command responsibility. Only in this way could we, on post-sacrificial terms, reverse modernity’s collapse into distribution according, ultimately, to “feelings,” and establish an order predicated upon raising the level of discipline.

One of the most powerful critiques of modern liberalism coming from a postmodern standpoint is that, despite its formal inclusiveness, the rights-based order must always locate some group or type of person unworthy or incapable of bearing rights. “Rights” are possessed by “humans,” so the argument simply becomes one over who counts as “human.” I would say the real basis of the critique is that there is always someone who, if granted rights, would subtract from the rights of others. If some minority is to have its rights guaranteed, then whoever is deemed a threat to those rights must have their own curtailed. There is always some exclusion, and exclusions from a social order provide leverage for subversion by those in power disaffected with that order. Receiving the gift of the opportunity to donate oneself to the subsistent center necessarily includes everyone within the order. Everyone is expected to give themselves, and what each is expected to give and receive is commensurate to the contribution made to deferring violent centralizing. The enhancement of the command received by the command obeyed is effected by embedding the command in some practice of deferral. Everyone can be expected to engage in such deferral, and we need never abandon the possibility that even the most reprobate may eventually do so. So, there is no need to place any “category” of human outside of the social order.

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