June 12, 2019

Language Policy

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:41 am

A sign is the deferral of violence. The first sign deferred imminent violence; subsequent signs may also do so, or they may defer intimations of merely possible violence, raising the threshold of what would count as a cause for violence. And not just violence in in general, but mimetically driven violence that would, if undeferred, consume all. So, in choosing our signs, we aim at deferring the possibility of some violence that will, in almost all cases, not erupt on the scene upon which we cast the sign—we are hypothesizing at several or many steps removed. In developing high level concepts, for example, we hope to defer forms of violence that threaten under conditions we can’t even imagine at present.

Once a human has taken over the center, the most feared form of violence is scapegoating frenzy directed towards that central figure, and so that must be prevented; still, it must happen sometimes, and its consequences could be more or less destructive; so, rituals and institutions and their linguistic underpinnings must also provide for less destructive consequences. Once we are post-sacrificial and anyone can become a center and hence a target of centralizing violence, the most compelling form of violence—that which holds some marked individual responsible for some imminent catastrophe—is also the kind that must be deferred. Force will, of course, have to be used against enemies and criminals, but only force that maintains the centered ordinality or orderly hierarchy.

What we are always talking about then, however directly or indirectly, is whether some person who has been singled out, named, is being prepped for or disqualified from sacrificial violence. Our linguistic intuition always enables us to tell the difference: either we are loading excess guilt onto the individual, placing him below the threshold at which norms regulating the use of force are activated, perhaps because time is of the essence or the regular forms could not do justice to the singularity of this guilt; or, we are constructing reasons not to proceed against the individual, conferring upon him motives and embedding him in conditions that not only stay our hand but lead us to shape the surroundings so that forms of authority are invoked and reinforced.  These contending possibilities are not only in our language, they are our language. The conferral of an unhindered chain of imperatives upon a central authority is a result of the ascendancy of the moral imperative over the transgressive temptation: the more our language is saturated with ways of naming the impossible victim, the less it can consider centralized violence against the central figure without whom a cessation of violence is unthinkable.

Always naming impossible victims is the most moral way of speaking and writing; such a practice eventually entails naming ways of determining when, where and how the impossible victim is to be named. But, of course, the chains of command are never quite unbroken, and the temptation of transgression can never be eliminated—in fact, it is always encroaching. So, in naming impossible victims we entrain the naming of those persons as possible victims—such an implication is part of the same language in which we name the impossibility of their victimization, because deferral only makes sense if shaded by mimetic crisis. So, the possibility and impossibility of victimization must be made foreground and background of each other, parenthetical references, subordinate clauses, absolute and prepositional phrased within the sentences where the other is named. Representing both poles in their interdependence is the way in which the impossibility of victimization is represented. The representation of the temptation of transgression within the impossibilization of victimization is originary satire.

We are always presenting, at different levels of explicitness and awareness, hypotheses regarding the desires and resentments informing others’ actions. This also means we read others’ representations of ourselves as hypotheses regarding our own desires and resentments. But if we can say this, doesn’t it follow that we should always make our respective hypotheses more explicit, and be more aware of them? Note that I just drew an imperative from a declarative, or a prescriptive from a descriptive: if this is what we are always, already, doing, then we should do it explicitly and knowingly. This is essentially what it means to see declaratives as studies of the ostensive-imperative world, aimed at producing more possible ostensives.

But perhaps making more explicit our respective hypotheses regarding one another’s “mimology” interferes with the imperative to defer resentments. After all, at least sometimes, there is no better way of inflaming resentments than naming them. So, here we have a case of competing imperatives, both them with fairly firm “pedigrees.” They must both be preserved—that’s an even older imperative. There might be lots of ways of making my own and the other’s respective mimological hypotheses more explicit, and some of them might generate more uncontrollable forms of resentment than others; also, not all forms of resentment are equally enduring, or convert equally readily into violence. So, we aim at maximum explicitness articulated with minimal incitement to direct violence. We don’t want to drive the other into a blind fury; we want give him a new name, and part of that new name is “observer of the old names to which he belonged.” So, this means maximum separation from the old name, with minimal separation from the space of naming itself—the more confrontational one might be, the more the confrontation should be situated within an arena in which there is a shared distinction between fair and foul play.

This maximizing and minimizing is the realm of the thought experiment, which is the arena within which our mimological hypotheses are played out. If I’ve made the other’s hypothesis a bit more explicit than it was before, where can I find in his own language a way of making it yet more explicit? This imperative-interrogative articulation implies that there is something obfuscating his hypothesis. This something is some disavowed agency, displaced onto some supplementary representation. In the pre-literate, ritual world, this supplementary representation would be of a sacred agent—when I struck him, the god of rage, or whoever, filled my breast and guided my hand, etc. A ritual response would then be the proper recompense. In the literate world, following the “second revelation” (somewhat parallel to the “second revelation” of the Big Man), these disavowed agencies and supplementary representations are provided by the disciplines. These include concepts of freedom and responsibility that come primarily from legal discourse—the concepts needed to determine how to convict and punish once “blood prices” are no longer the means of settling disputes become “internalized” or, I would say, incorporated into our respective namings of each other.

Since the disciplines are ways of making sense of imperatives coming from the center, it is precisely this relation to the center that is obfuscated. So, let’s say someone commits a crime and confesses, taking full responsibility. Well, that’s better than having recourse to another discipline, like psychiatry, and claiming “temporary insanity,” or whatever, because at least in this case there is an openness to self-inspection. But locating the source of one’s actions in oneself is a denial of the mimetic nature of those actions, and this concealment is sure to show up in the confession itself. Somewhere in there we will find some slippage from being free of a desire to do wrong to being possessed by that desire. Here’s a place to introduce competing hypotheses, via a satiric thought experiment: something happened within that slippage that you don’t want to or can’t see. Wouldn’t part of taking responsibility be hypothesizing how you came to construct your responsibility as you did? In confessing, you heed an imperative from the center. Let’s first lay that out, in whatever moral, theological and legalistic language you have at your disposal. Then let’s see if we can hypothesize regarding the origin of those concepts in your own representation of your actions. I don’t mean empirical origins (“my father first taught me about guilt when I was 6 years old…”); I mean their origins in this very discourse—what in your story and self-accounting would leave you desiring or fearing violence towards or from others without the introduction of those concepts? Here is where we can represent an obscured resentment maximally while leaving minimal pathways toward acting on that resentment because we have strengthened our mutual adherence to the imperative to name oneself as the doer of this deed. There will be some supplementary concept here that, if we repeat it enough times, in sufficiently different contexts, will help us bring its origins to light. If we get rid of, for example, the “freedom/determinism” binary we can find a previously obscured imperative from the center.

This kind of thinking mostly involves converting imperatives into declaratives: “I had to do this” becomes “this other was blocking me from the center,” which in turn issues new imperatives like “discover a center such that it must have been acknowledging both of you equally, in however different ways.” The declaratives one constructs in the process lead one all the way back to the originary scene, where one in fact places oneself and one’s interlocutors; and all the way forward into the future, as one provides the linguistic material or “samples” that can be used in as yet unimaginable ways to defer unanticipated forms of violence. Your own gesture always borrows from another, to whom you attribute the first one—the more your own gesture is “really” first, the more it will confer firstness on the other. This is the position on the originary scene. The more you represent or adumbrate the resentments potentially generating by this present gesture of yours, along with counter-resentments and possible donations of these resentments to the center in the form of new mediations that would redirect our resenting attention from each other to a new mode of distribution (beyond our control) of the center, the more your discourse takes on futurity.

This is no longer classical prose because insofar as we are all on the same scene it is the scene of writing, which is a singular scene by virtue of being a mere generator of other possible scenes towards which we all take up some relation by the way of the imperatives we hear on this one. As we turn descriptives into prescriptives, the scene is distributed. In the end we are all shaping a collaborative project, not of representing reality, but of deferring mimetic violence as far into the future as possible (a lot of reality does need to get represented for this to take). And so the imperative is to become ever more explicit about this, and in such a way as to advance the collaborative project itself. We must always have recourse to the most direct, explicit, and rigorous thinking of desire, resentment, and the center that we have, which is to say the strongest GA we can make is imperative. But if we’re also going to be using GA to make other discourses more rigorous by eliciting their own discourses of the center, then once we’ve eliminated disavowed agencies and supplementary concepts there would be no difference between GA and all other discourses. We would all be engaged, in infinitely various ways, in the study of our constitutive relation to the center. Our satirical thought experiments would always be necessary because our cleaving to the imperatives from the center that have so far named us will always interfere with hearing a more minimal version of that absolute imperative, but those satirical thought experiments would take the place of the disciplines. That, at least is the project, which is to be made indistinguishable from our language.

We can describe, in the most immediate and accessible way, this project as the determining and revealing of the meaning of words. This means the retrieval of words from their disciplinary appropriations (their passage through the nominalizations constituting the metalanguage of literacy) and their emplacement within centered ordinality. The question is, how would a given word be used within sentences and discourses that present the hierarchy dictated by the center named by those sentences and discourses? You could say that determining the meaning of words is the formalism of language: what a word like “action” means is the way it is used by someone capable of action, or of commanding action, or of abstaining from action in order to distinguish one mode of action from another, ultimately for the sake of those yet to make decisions. What a word means, that is, is how it is used by someone authorized by the “situation,” which is to say, some center, to use it. And even someone expelled from the center is authorized to name the terms of that expulsion. This also means that becoming a student of meaning entails becoming authorized to use the words you study, which means founding a scene of their use, before you can know whether others will join you there.

June 4, 2019

Center and Origin: The Name-of-the-Center and Centered Names

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:04 am

Any center is fit out with a link to the origin—therein lies its power. Even more, any center is itself an origin, an ever emergent origin. Any use of a sign entrains the entire history of sign use and any articulation of joint attention iterates the originary scene. Sometimes, due to semiotic and bureaucratic drift, the origin needs to be retrieved, but that just means a particular element or moment of the scene has replaced the scene as a whole. The most likely “culprit” is the deceleratory moment of the scene, when all the participants conform their respective gestures to the norm that has emerged on the scene. This “settling in” would be the most memorable part of the scene, and the one that would be confirmed and conformed to even more precisely in ritual. We regularly have recourse to this element of the scene—even in the course of some innovation or disruption much of the scene must be held steady as a kind of “control” so that the novelty can stand out by contrast. When engaged in the “producers desire” to remember the origin this need for control is forgotten, and only the resistance of others on the scene can establish limits to the unfamiliar gesture.

Whatever or whoever is at any center succeeds in a direct line to the central object on the originary scene. The most mediocre president of a fourth-rate country carries this lineage; for that matter, so does a bored substitute teacher in a classroom in a failing urban school. Everyone looks to the center to determine what to do, even if what to do is to defy or ridicule the center, because the central figure is telling you, in not so many words, that he has not inhabited or impersonated the resources the center provides for exercising the power of deferral. If the figure occupying the immediate center allows the baton passed from the object on the originary scene to drop, all those present on the scene are obliged either to prop up that center or turn to a new one. If the central figure can’t or won’t issue those commands that will tie this scene to the history of scenes so as to provide those present with the roles or masks they need to organize themselves ordinally around the center, they will treat the central figure as a negative indicator pointing to the commands that should have been uttered, that have been uttered under “analogous” conditions, that can be obeyed even without having been uttered. Once someone is placed in a position where he has to lead or clog things up, those he is responsible for can build their own little centers around the clog or treat him as if he is leading—whether either approach turns out to be subversive or galvanizing will depend upon the response of the potential leader, or the emergence of a new one.

This discussion is necessary because while I have been generating a new way of using the concept of the center within GA I have not sufficiently insisted on the fact that “origin” and “center” are complementary ways of referring to the constitution of the event. This can make it sound like central power stands and commands on its own, which comes close to sounding like an exercise of brute force, while in fact central power resides in the power of the origin. If we need to make the distinction between “power” and “authority” we can say that “power” draws upon the power of the origin while “authority” carries it forward and extends it. You need both—even mere drawing upon and preservation of the center implies at least some “extension.” Now we can speak of something equivalent to “legitimacy,” or the intrinsic relation between ostensive and imperative, as residing in the more specific origin of any community. The communist or liberal or revolutionary or usurpationist origin of the country where you find your obligations, then, cannot be “illegitimate.” What can be the case is that, because the origin of the existing mode of power has weakened or interrupted the line of origins, the commands issued by that central authority cannot be filled in or complemented in the act of obedience. There is always a gap between the imperative issued and the imperative obeyed, and that gap is filled in by complementing the imperative with the enabling imperatives preceding it. Those enabling imperatives don’t just confirm the authority of the commander (like asking the manager whether your supervisor can really have you do this) but provide essential information regarding how to do it.

Eric Gans has referred to the emergence of the Big Man, i.e., the “usurpation” of the center by a person, as a “second revelation.” I have been arguing that the development of literacy represents a similarly second revelation in relation to the oral/ritual world. Tying these two revelations together is the one Gans refers to as the monotheistic revelation, enacted for a single people via the Mosaic revelation and then for all humans in the Christian one. (As I usually do in these discussions, I’ll make the necessary but inadequate gesture towards equivalent developments in the East, in Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism.) This “post-sacrificial,” or “charismatic,” revelation of the “absolute imperative” (to defer rather than sacralize centralizing violence) is the revelation that completes that of the Big Man and that of literacy. What has happened is that we now have a center irreducible to the central authority who issues imperatives, a center with which we no longer have direct access to via “imperative exchange.” These enormous upheavals involved a radical break and alienation from the origin of specific groups, much less the origin of humanity, which as a consequence has to now be retrieved through practices enacting the heeding of the absolute imperative. Such practices require declarative formulation, because the remnants of those specific events (the revelation on Mt Sinai; the crucifixion) upon in which the absolute imperative was heard must be supplemented for communities (that is, all communities) which cannot live and sacrifice on the actual site of the revelation.

These practices are constructed through the naming of events of origin—more precisely, origins of a particular revelation of the absolute imperative (which is always revealing itself in new ways). A country, an institution, an organization, must have such an origin if the commands issued by its central authority are to be effectively obeyed. We can say that all individuals are named because all individuals are such sites of origin: when a new baby is born, we refrain from sacrificing it, certainly literally, but also in the sense of claiming to control or predict who that baby will become. If something changes, it retrieves or repudiates its origin, in the process creating a new one. Insofar as we are all centers, we are all events of origin, and named as such—not just our given name, although the importance of that never completely disappears, not just new names we adopt, titles, nicknames, and so on, but the declarative names people give us and we give, or try to give, ourselves: statements, descriptions, stories and so on—insofar as they single us out, they name us.

The center as named provides us with a way of rejecting familiar ways of speaking about “the society and the individual.” I would reject all talk of the “individual” within GA, as well as the concept of an “internal scene of representations” which Eric Gans uses to refer to a kind of privatized space we can trace back to the sparagmos. The individual is always constituted in relation to, which means hearing imperatives from, the center—everything that we do is in obedience to a command from the center. We can speak of a relation between the name-of-the-center and the centered name. We are nothing more than our names, beginning with the socially recognized name to be found on our driver’s license, paychecks, tax returns, diplomas, and so on, but, revolving around that name all the other names that refer to it more or less directly. What the “second revelation,” in the totality I just presented, means in these terms is a shift from a name of the center we can be named after to a name-of-the-center that can only be named in its namelessness. Naming, I am assuming, was originally a way of commemorating and affirming obligations to ancestors, who were worshipped; we are still often named after ancestors, but we don’t worship them and what we worship we don’t take as a source of names—rather, what we worship is the source of naming as an act.

At the same time, as Gans has pointed out on more than one occasion, every word is the Name-of-God. We have to take “every word” in the broadest possible sense here—a sentence can be the Name-of-God; indeed, the name of God in Exodusis, as Gans has often emphasized, a sentence. A book can be the name of God. Our individual names, then, are also the Name-of-God, but the Name-of-God as given within a particular historical stream, at a particular point within that stream. And names change, while referring to previous names when they do. I came across a quote from Richard Feyman recently: “knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it.” Within its context, Feynman’s statement is obviously true, but I am arguing for a diametrically opposed way of thinking about it: if you don’t understand something, that just means that you don’t know its name—its “proper” name, its “real” name, or, if we want to be a little technical, its name in the event of naming. Coming to know or understand something is coming to name it in the disciplinary event of deciding it needs to be named, trying out different names, arriving at one, testing it, and so on. This is an event within which some unnamed object within a system of names becomes available for ostensive reference, and must be named in order to maintain the completeness of the system of names.

I think these formulations have important consequences. Not only do a whole set of pseudo-problems regarding the “individual,” his interiority, his identity, evaporate, or get resolved into the single, always asked, never conclusively answered question, “who are you,” but if all we have in a social order are names everything is part of the social order in a constitutive, originary manner from the very beginning. You are not in the world until you have entered through your name. The way we constitute and present ourselves as centers is through entering or inhabiting our names, projecting a possible new name for ourselves, repudiating an old or attributed one, among other possible acts. Even more, these formulations advance the mode of engagement I have been coming to propose through the concept of “originary satire.” Not always, but often, satire works through conflating individuals with their names, and with the satirist himself taking on a name so as to move through the system of names he has reduced the surrounding impersonations to. Satire is an attempt to further refine names until they position someone or something or some event on the originary scene, retrieved prior to the second revelation. That is, to refine the names until they name something on the scene at its most scenic, where the issue is in question, where the sign has not yet been normalized, and where our own naming therefore completes the scene. The satiric dimension within the esthetic is this moment of the scene at its most scenic, where we have what Gans once referred to as the “fearful symmetry” where each is at once potential victim and potential attacker, threatening and vulnerable simultaneously. The scene is completed simply by having a “critical mass” of participants see each other this way, because enough people seeing each other this way and showing that they see each other this way isthe sign. When we’re speaking with each other we’re really just naming each other and everything that makes us each other. Realizing this can make our discourse very ad hominem; but it could also make it very ad deum; at any rate, focusing exclusively on each other’s names as named by the unnamable Name-of-the-Center, which is itself nothing but the space opened up for receiving our names, would make us extremely ad centrum.

May 28, 2019

Market Capillarism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 3:00 pm

I’m going to follow up on this definition of the “market” that I offered in my “The Event of Technology” post: “what people without direct authority for maintaining the social center do with knowledge, information and skills when they are being protected and bounded but not directly supervised by such authorities.” The market, in its most abstract, praxeological terms, is understood as the interactions generated by the free choices of individuals. As an ontology, this is absurd, if for no other reason than that no one chooses the language in which these choices are made. But it makes good sense if we think about the market as those interactions that take place under the radar of some kind of direct supervision, especially if we consider that such “radar” is never absolutely comprehensive (we couldn’t even imagine what “absolutely comprehensive” supervision would mean, since each form of supervision would generate margins for decision making undetermined by the supervision itself). So, if I’m supervising a group of children, and I give them a strict schedule of activities and distribute roles in a hierarchical manner amongst them, and focus mostly on making sure they are doing what the schedule says they should be doing and receiving reports from the individuals in charge at certain points I leave open plenty of space for the children to exchange responsibilities and resources amongst themselves. So, one of the children’s duties is to sweep the classroom; another is to clean the dishes—one child who assigned sweeping duty asks some child who has playtime to sweep for him and, in exchange, the first child will do the dishes for the other later. We have the makings of a “market” here, and there’s not necessarily any reason for me to concern myself with it, as long as it doesn’t interfere with and perhaps even enhances the functioning of the institution. I can raise and lower the threshold of supervision depending on how beneficial the “market system” seems to be, and I can make sure the threshold doesn’t get high enough so that my own position gets implicated in the market.

The introduction of money into the system provides those engaged in market exchanges with more flexible means of establishing long-term interactions, while also ensuring the control of the central authority over this expanded process. Money is introduced as debt, debt which is ultimately owned by the central authority, whether or not finance is nominally controlled by privatized agencies. The more money in the system, the more the central authority is likely to be marketized as well. This is another way of saying that money is power, and this form of power competes with the form of power exercised by the central authority. The power of money is the power of abstraction—that is, the power to separate groups and individuals from the larger settings in which they are embedded. If you can separate groups and individuals from their settings you can mobilize them for your own projects. The power of money becomes the power of capital, which is the power to abstract not only individuals and groups but disciplines, which is to say knowledges, media and technologies, from the results of the abstractions those disciplines had helped to effect. The problem of containing the market system within the terms of central supervision is one, needless to say, that modern politics has not solved; indeed, the most cherished principles of the liberal social order make sacrosanct the primacy of market power over central authority—any reversal of this primacy is deemed “tyranny” or “totalitarianism.” And yet the market is still inconceivable without the central authority, reconceived as a political market, in which citizenship is defined as a certain quantity of tokens authorizing one to make withdrawals from the center.

The traditionalist opposes abstraction in the name of full embedment, but the possibility of rejecting abstraction disappeared with the rise of divine kingship a few millennia ago. By now, the forms of embedment defended against abstraction are the results of previous abstractions that have been re-embedded. The question is, in what form will abstraction proceed? Or, what kinds of mobilizations are necessary? If the market operates within the capillaries of the system of supervision, then abstractions should contribute to that system. The paradox of power is that the more central the authority, the more authority depends upon the widest distribution of the means to recognize authority; to put it in grammatical terms, the paradox of power is the paradox of the most unequivocal imperative leaving the largest scope of implementation of that imperative. To think about the scope of the market is to think about how to make this paradox more explicit. As I pointed out in “The Event of Technology” (and as Andrew Bartlett explains very thoroughly in his “Originary Science, Originary Memory: Frankenstein and the Problem of Modern Science”), abstraction always involves some desacralization or, to put it more provocatively, some sacrilege. Sacrilege can be justified on the grounds that the innovation it introduced will enable new forms of observance of the founding imperatives of the social order. So, the sacrilege should be, as Bartlett argues, “minimal,” while the new forms of observance (I depart from Bartlett’s formulation here) should be maximal. Abstraction creates new “elements,” and therefore new relations between elements. Monetary and capitalist abstractions are pulverizing, creating new elements that are identical to each other, and therefore most easily mobilized for any purpose. This is the process of “de-skilling,” with its ultimate telos being automation, that labor theorists have known of for a very long time. An absolutist mode of abstraction, meanwhile, would make ever finer distinctions between skills, competencies and forms of authority within disciplinary spaces. In this way, abstraction carries with it its own form of re-embedment.

The market economy, then, becomes a measure of fluctuations around the threshold at which the paradox of power is made explicit. All social conflicts can’t be reduced to this fluctuation, but all social conflicts are “processed” through it. This is most obviously the case for everything grouped under the concept of globalization, most especially movements of capital (at the “high” end) and migration (at the “low” end). Globalization represents a raising of the threshold at which the paradox of power is made explicit: global corporations have been released from obligations to any central authority and construct their own command chains, which include governments as subordinate partners; advocates of increased migration exercise power across borders that national states find it difficult to counter. In both cases, states are set up so that they must respond to the same “market” incentives as the corporations and migrants themselves. We could imagine a point at which the paradox of power would have to reach such a threshold to become explicit that central authorities would not be issuing “operational” commands at all—commands would just be one more incentive (or disincentive) agents further down in the chain of command would have to take into account by assessing the likelihood of any penalty for disobedience.

Within a market order, then, any action, event or relationship is characterized by a fundamental duality. On one side, however thinly, the paradox of power is in play: all actors recognize that their sphere of activity is protected by some more powerful agency and constrain and direct their activity accordingly. On the other side, to some extent, imperatives are converted into market signals—that is, a site of exchange where one person’s power to punish or reward you must be balanced against lots of other peoples’ power to do so. In both cases we find an interaction between center and periphery—in the first case, one acts in a way that redounds to the authority of the center, thereby creating space for the further replacement of external by auto-supervision; in the second case, one tries to subject the central authority to incentives and disincentives similar to the ones we are all subject to—this ranges from simple bribery and other forms of corruption to the vast avenues of influences made legal and even encouraged within a liberal social order, like lobbying, forming interest groups, political donations, think tanks, media propaganda and so on. We could locate anything anyone does, thinks or says somewhere along this continuum and study social dysfunctions accordingly.

Probably the most intuitively obvious argument in favor of the “free market” is the Hayekian claim that all the knowledge required to carry out production and cooperation at all the different social levels is far too distributed and complex to be centralized and subordinated to a single agent. This is of course true, but also a non-sequitur and a distraction. A general must provide some leeway to his subordinates, and they to theirs, and so on, and for the same reason—the general can’t know exactly what this specific platoon might have to do under unexpected circumstances, and he can’t even know all that one would need to in order to prepare them for those circumstances. There will therefore be “markets” all along the line, as people instructed to work together to address some exigency organize “exchanges” of knowledge, skills and actions amongst themselves in order to do so. The general doesn’t need to know 1/1,000 of all the specifics of these interactions to still be the general—that is, to issue commands that can be obeyed, and to place himself in a position to ensure that they will be. The same is true for those institutions charged with providing communications, health care, education, transportation, housing and so on. In each case, capillaries along the margins of these institutions can be adjusted in accord with the level of responsibility to be allowed consistent with meeting the purpose of the institution. The argument for markets is really saying no more than that you can’t do a very good job if you’re being micromanaged at every point along the way. It’s equally true that you can’t do a very good job if the terms of each move you make have to be “negotiated” with a constantly changing range of agents.

Liberalism has generated the illusion that what appears below the threshold of direct supervision is what, in fact, determines the form of supervision; even more, that the supervision is a servant of those actors which have merely been provided some leeway. This situation produces destructive delusions, because the presumably free agents are nevertheless aware of their utter dependence upon their “servants.” Is there any businessman who thinks he would be able to protect himself against violence, fraud, robbery and extortion by those readier than him to use violence and break laws without the force of the state? No businessman believes this, but in a way they all believe it, because their political theory leads them to assume that, first, there were a bunch of individuals engaged in peaceful exchange with each other and then, only when criminals and invaders, presumably attracted by the wealth thereby created, tried to take it using force, was the state “hired” as a kind of Pinkertons to maintain order. This makes it impossible to think coherently about the simplest things, such as how a policy everyone would recognize to be beneficial might be conceived and implemented in the best way. Someone should make a “this is your brain on liberalism” public service announcement.

May 21, 2019

Beyond “Post-Sacrificial”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:00 am

I’ve been using the phrase “post-sacrificial culture,” generally in conjunction with the “Axial Age acquisitions,” to refer to the breakdown of the “imperative exchange” constitutive of sacrifice. Sacrifice involves an imperative exchange because the human member of the community offering the sacrifice (bringing his goat, or whatever, to the altar) is following an order issued by the deity to offer up some of the fruits provided, ultimately, by that deity; while, in exchange, the sacrifice represents a request, on the part of the one offering the sacrifice, that the deity continue providing these benefits (more goats). In a sense, our culture is not post-sacrificial, and it may be that no culture can ever be so, definitively—we engage the institutional orders around us in terms of imperative exchanges all the time, simply by assuming if we “play by the rules” we will be commensurately rewarded, and in resenting the failure of the institutional center to hold up its end of the bargain. But it’s still correct to call our culture post-sacrificial, because our “sacrifices” are figurative and not directly measurable—we speak in terms of trust, consent, contract, and so on, and keep extending those terms into areas where the ”superstitious” nature of our “faith” on institutional structures would be embarrassing. But the fact that it would be embarrassing, for most, in most situations, to say we offer up a “piece” of ourselves not so much to our boss (which would feel especially ridiculous) or even the institution, but to some “idea” of the institution, even one we don’t really “believe” in, is what makes us post-sacrificial.

But any concept with a “post” (or, for that matter, a “neo”) in it is still a placeholder, and therefore unsatisfactory. Now, we can say much more about how we have arrived, through those “Axial Age acquisitions,” at a “post-sacrificial” culture. Sacrifice is “embarrassing” because it has been discredited, and it has been discredited because the violent centralizing involved in sacrifice—we commit violence against this being that we all focus on in exchange for peace and prosperity—has been revealed as fraudulent. It’s our own mimetic desires that confer centrality on the “sacred” being, not any attribute of the being itself. And we see this because all sacrifice tends towards human sacrifice and, paradoxically, as Eric Gans shows in The End of Culture, does so the more God Himself is understood in “human” terms—that is, more as a mediator between humans than a central focus precluding the emergence of humans as centers in their own right. If the gods give us food, then we owe them food in return; if God has created us out of nothing, we owe him everything, even our firstborn. But how could even that be enough?

Human sacrifice emerges along with human hierarchy, as the first figures to make a claim to permanent centrality were sacral kings, who were no doubt often killed in manners that, with immense variation across cultures, became increasingly ritualized. The sacral king mediated between the community and the cosmos, and if that mediation went wrong sacrificing the king would restore it; at a certain point it would make sense to regularize the oscillation between effective and ineffective mediation. Divine kings introduced layers of bureaucratic mediation between themselves and those they ruled, so they themselves could no longer be sacrificed. But divine kings eventually established justice systems to deal with disputes between the new centers inevitably created within those new “layers” between themselves and the people. Regularized forms of compensation are established. Large scale imperative exchanges are established between the divine king and those situated in the various layers, all of whom bring tributes to the divine king who has, of course, provided his people with everything. With a justice system, injustice becomes a possibility; if injustice becomes a possibility, it is also possible for the system as a whole, in failing to remedy that injustice, to itself be unjust. And its unjust nature could be concentrated in a singular figure, a victim who has become meaningful in a new way, by being victimized precisely as a result of revealing systemic injustice. The sacrifice of such a victim in order to resolve some crisis would take on the ritual sacrificial forms but would be impossible to “contain” within those forms. This process would set in motion the erosion of sacrificial forms, and of the imperative exchange they institute.

So, the divine king inches ever closer to demanding a “total” gift or sacrifice, but can only do so in terms that are so monstrous that the more civilized regions of the system make it possible to see those terms as an indictment of divine kinship itself. From here, those in a position to negotiate in some way with the divine center can go in one of two directions: toward cynicism and nihilism, on the one hand; or, towards another form of “total donation” on the other. Cynicism and nihilism can only be a local phenomenon indulged in by the privileged. The new kind of total donation is to a new kind of center, which cannot be embodied in a central figure, and certainly not a central ruler—this is a center that commands a refusal to engage in the discredited forms of violent centralizing. A genuinely and completely post-sacrificial center would be devoted to propagating and embodying, or signifying, this command. Very few do so wholly, but it is only a certain number, which we couldn’t determine in advance, which would necessary to exemplify the limits of sacrifice and preventing the social order from being engulfed in it.

So, if we don’t want to call this order “post-sacrificial,” what should we call it? Part of the difficulty is that liberalism “launders” sacrificial imperative exchanges through a post-sacrificial order. Needless to say, scapegoating goes on constantly within a liberal order—much of it remains symbolic, which raises a question: are we irredeemable scapegoaters, so the best we can do is make scapegoating more symbolic, and less violent?; or does a liberal democratic system predicated upon symbolic scapegoating prevent us from more decisively marginalizing scapegoating? If the latter is the case, the only way of creating an order that would be more than merely “post-sacrificial” would be the establishment of an order we might call “charismatic autocracy.” “Charismatic” in Philip Rieff’s “graceful” sense of charisma as deferral in obedience to an absolute imperative (in our terms, the imperative to defer violent centralizing). “Autocracy,” meanwhile, is essential, because as long as we have hierarchical societies, someone will be at the center, and the only way to avoid constant accusations of illegitimate usurpations of the center and hidden powers behind the temporary occupant of the center would be to place the occupant of the center beyond any external criteria of “legitimacy.” That would represent a radical curtailment of sacrificial logics, because the desire to replace the figure at the center is the most “bad faith” desire possible because it self-evidently represents an attempt to be closer to the center oneself. A general renunciation of that desire would represent a quantum leap in the deferral power of all members of the social order. The argument for such an order would be predicated upon the assumption, for which we could find a wealth of practical examples, that symbolic scapegoating is really just a “gateway drug” prepping us for the real thing. The “charismatic” component of the “autocracy,” then, is less a quality possessed by than conferred upon the autocrat, who is himself in fact desacralized and represents nothing more than the need that someone occupy the center. (This doesn’t mean a social order wouldn’t want, and couldn’t arrange for, the best possible person to occupy the position—it just means that such arrangements must themselves be bound up with the irreducibility of the central authority.)

In grammatical terms, “charismatic autocracy” involves a movement past “imperative exchange” to “interrogative imperativity.” Under the regime of imperative exchange, declarative culture is ultimately a kind of scorekeeping, trying to figure out the respective “values” that are being exchanged. To this day, most discussions of morality take this form. But once the imperative is to resist or defer imperative exchanges, an interrogative, a question, is introduced explicitly into the proceedings. Not the question, “how much is this worth,” which is never a real question because it’s just a way of accommodating oneself to the powers framing the existing order; rather, the question is, what violent centralizing lies at the end of this imperative exchange? All the linguistic means by which you construct yourself as a center then become open to “interrogation,” as either demands for a better “deal” or “intimations” of the creation of new centers that would render any deal irrelevant. Only the demand for this state of questioning can satisfy the command for a total donation.

Within the imperative exchange, declaratives essentially involve haggling over prices—what one owes the gods/institutions, what they owe us, and, further down, what we owe to each other, whether in market terms or in terms of honor and kinship. Within interrogative imperativity, declaratives take on a far wider scope, that of converting possible (and impossible) imperative exchanges into a rule or constraint for deferring “analogous” imperative exchanges. The first question, rather than, “how do we get what we’re owed,” becomes more like, “what makes you think obligations can be calculated?” And then an inquiry is opened up into all the different ways people can imagined they’re owed this or that—and once the strict terms of obligation have been displaced many more such possibilities become imaginable. All the mythical and ritual imperatives you are obeying to imagine each and every one of them become evident. Narratives accordingly shift from telling of the spiraling out of control of one imperative economy until it leads to a reset, to putting all imperative economies in question, exposing the imbalance in all presumed balances.

The most powerful way of doing this is originary satire, which involves turning every threshold and boundary into a narrative wherein figures on both sides of the boundary or threshold turn into each other, so that the terms of some expected imperative exchange are reversed. That is, the “vocation” or telos of the sentence is represent other scenes within the scene of composing and hearing/reading the sentence itself. Everything grammar does—tense, mood, aspect, etc.—it does in order to articulate relationships between the scene of utterance and the other scene(s) it refers/defers to. In that case, all these boundaries and thresholds are themselves materials for originary satire: the relation between present and past, between a continual and a completed action, between possible and actual are all abstracted and re-embedded in narratives. It’s just as easy to say we spoke with each other a thousand years ago as it is to say we spoke with each other yesterday; that we are in the middle of doing something that’s been going on for decades and is further metastasizing even as we speak as it is to mention where we are right now; something that is unbelievably unlikely can be set alongside something that seems obvious; linguistically, you could be saying what I think as easily as I can. Originary satire targets chunks of language, stereotypical sentence types, which tend to harden into the marshalling of evidence for imperative exchanges, for their beneficial or inevitable nature—i.e., sentences that supplement imperative exchanges, rather than extracting samples of language from them so as to remind us that language is always received on a scene. In simpler terms, our expectations of one another rest on the bedrock of imperative exchanges, and the purpose of disciplinary spaces aimed at satirizing those expectations is so that we can see them, ultimately in order to construct charismatic and autocratic modes of interaction requiring more “input” into the construction of expectations. In truth, this is the most realistic use of language, because we are always, still, on the originary scene, which can never “close.”

The concept of “interrogative imperativity” makes it possible to pose more explicitly a question that has been implicit in my earlier discussions of literacy as a kind of supplementary originary scene: why is the scene of classical prose objectionable, or worth exposing? Because it fulfills one imperative of the declarative (to defer imperatives by “absenting” the demanded object) by renouncing the other imperative of the declarative—to articulate other scenes with the scene of language itself. This means that the literate declarative scene can only keep reiterating and justifying its own supplementations (again, all the “beliefs,” “assumptions,” “claims,” “suggestions,” “implications,” etc.) so as to sustain the unitary prose scene—it must systematically obfuscate the declarative’s grounding in the ostensive-imperative world. Classical prose and the “classic” disciplines are interested in making beliefs, assumptions, etc., unequivocal, that is, used the same way by everyone—for this reason, they cannot construct, or even imagine, the possible ostensives and imperatives that would come before any “belief” or “assumption.” Originary writing, in that case, restores this grounding, but not, of course, by pretending the literacy revolution never happened. Rather it takes the nominalizations constructed by classic prose as names which we can apply beyond their restriction, imposed by classic prose, to the unitary scene—most directly, by applying them to the disciplinary iterations of classic prose itself. So, originary writing obeys an imperative from the center discovered/invented by the nominalizations of classic prose and the disciplines. That imperative is to generate more potential ostensives and what these ostensives do is name sites of emergent dangerous violent centralization, as early on in their onset as possible. Some nominalizations will end up being genuine names for practices of advanced deferral; some will turn out to have been incitements toward violent centralization—the work of the disciplinary space is to iterate these nominalizations/names so as to discover/expose which is which (or to detour them to new uses).

When we study “reality,” that is, what we are doing is inventing and deploying concepts enabling us to detect potential sites of mimetic contagious outbreak. We can do this because of the cognitive consequences of literacy, which parallel and contribute to the discrediting of sacrifice. But classical prose and its metaphysical superstructure just contain and normalize sacrifice by classifying and ordering the markings of the potential victim rather than relying on the spontaneous crisis. Still, it is only through that prose and those superstructures that we can generate the terms of a charismatic autocracy. The supplementary concepts used to simulate a shared scene for writer and reader can be turned into means for generating new scenes of origin of deferred scapegoating. If you take a concept out of its context so as to conceptualize the context itself you create a disciplinary space within that context—that disciplinary space will either reveal that the discipline (the “context”) is too bound to its unitary scene to generate further potential ostensives, or recover and prolong the origin of the discipline/context in a recontextualized ostensive.

May 14, 2019

The Paradoxical Telos of the Aesthetic

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:11 am

The origin of the aesthetic lies in the oscillation of the participant on the originary scene’s attention between the sign (the aborted gesture of appropriation) put forth by the other, on the one hand, and the central object, on the other. The sign barring access to the object enhances the desirability of that object, while the object, lacking meaning without the sign, directs the attention back to the “well formed” sign. So, wherein lies the aesthetic, then? In the object, which is turned into something like an image of itself; or, in the sign, which presents deferral as an attractive model, and constitutes the first body image? It must be in the oscillation itself—in some object of desire as seen through the gesture, which is to say the constitution of the scene, which makes it an “formal” rather than “material” object. So, historically, works of art have mostly been of potentially desirable, or even potentially repellent, things in the world, rather than (directly) of the others who mediate our relation to it—but the work of art presents this object as so mediated—i.e., as socially protected and inaccessible in some way, as opposed to the object it might be representing.


Eric Gans speaks of the history of aesthetics as the history of the incorporation of the scene of representation within the work of art itself. This history commences once aesthetics is distinguished from ritual. So, the earliest secular artworks, like Greek tragedy, do not represent the scene of representation at all—in a manner minimally (but very importantly) distinguished from ritual, the audience participates in the resentment toward the central figure, a resentment that is “purged” by identification with that figure’s suffering. What interests me here is that art, as an immersive experience is, like ritual, institutionally separated from the rest of life. This is because the social hierarchy that makes one, but not others, of intrinsic interest, is taken for granted. Once other centers emerge in a post-sacrificial order, the work of art must include peripheral figures within the work, even if the focus remains, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, on the “Big Men.” This involves obvious forms of self-references like the play-within-the-play, but also figures and scenes within the play (like plebeians expressing resentment towards their superiors) that comment on the events involving the Big Men.


I think we can see this as a broader process of undoing the ontological separation between the work of art and the social world of the audience experiencing it. Once the voices of those similar to the audience are represented within the play, why not the audience itself? Why shouldn’t the participation of the audience be the play? It may be considered an astonishing testament to the institutional power of artistic representation that not only did it take so long for the idea to emerge that the creative primacy of the artist is ultimately a mere adjunct to the experience of the “recipient,” but that this idea has still not moved much beyond the artistic “avant-garde” margins to more mainstream or officially sanctioned works. The pleasure of transcending resentment by subordinating ourselves to the “domination” of the artist is certainly part of the resistance to an aesthetics that would be nothing more than minimal shifts in attention producing maximum oscillation between the created scene and other scenes.


The broader problem, though, is that trying to undo the life/art boundary requires that the practices of “life” that resist participation in “art” must be represented; and those artistic conventions that “segregate” the audience from the work must also be represented. Otherwise, how would we know we were transgressing a boundary? But these must be critical representations, of conventional “complacency” that wishes to be “spoon-fed” artistic pleasure, on the one hand, and traditions of representation that “condescend” to and “manipulate” a “passive” audience. Taking on the art/life boundary is asymmetrical warfare, i.e., terrorism, which is always snuffed out in the end. This has always been the dilemma of the avant-garde which always, amusingly enough, saw itself as bringing art to the “people.” Even with much more pacific and patient approaches, moves towards abolishing the art/life boundary will always involve moves that reconstitute it.


That just means, though, that this paradoxical relation between the institutionalized scene of art and the other scenes that art scene must itself stage would be transferred to the domain of everyday practices. The paradoxical telos of the aesthetic is to make all of life aesthetic. Or, rather, since all of our practices already have an aesthetic dimension, this telos is to open up “everyday life” to artistic creativity. The romantic and modernist utopian vision was that everyone would become an artist, once freed of inhibiting conventions; an absolutist approach, more modest, is that everyone would take an interest in noticing and enhancing the aesthetic dimension of those conventions. It follows from the formalist maxim that all relations of power and authority be made explicit and named that the norms and conventions governing all areas of life would likewise be made explicit and named, and naming is best embedded in a memorable act—and, making acts memorable is part of what art is for.


Such daily aesthetic activity would be intensely interactive: just like on the originary scene itself, we would all be imitating and “inflecting” one another’s signs. Now, if the aesthetic includes the oscillation between sign and object, the recognition of the formality of the sign (which is to say, its iterability and therefore imitability) must take place on the periphery itself, horizontally between the participants on the scene. If we ask, how would the sign “coalesce” into a final shape in the reciprocal gazes cast around on the scene, I think the answer is that it would emerge out of another oscillation which each participant would see in the others: an oscillation between vulnerability and threat. The tension between these opposing attitudes on the scene is what would paralyze everyone sufficiently to arrest the progress towards the central object. This pre-aesthetic oscillation is what would break down the pecking order and require some new means of preventing conflict.


This pre-representation of the other as equally and alternately vulnerable and threatening is what I have called “originary satire,” and posited as the initial moment of the aesthetic. Think of what would be involved in representing everyone this way—in drawing out everything monstrous, dangerous, vicious and menacing about them, while simultaneously finding everything pathetic, impotent, desperate and cowardly. Some rather remarkable, if ultimately static, characterizations would be possible, especially since presenting oneself as a threat can be seen as a way of concealing or compensating for vulnerability, while at times there can be nothing more threatening than a vulnerable, “cornered” animal. If we all saw each other exclusively like this, human life together would be impossible, and an art work that stopped at this pre-moral satire would be incapable of any real closure—I wonder if that is why Wyndham Lewis’s satires often seem awkward, somewhat arbitrary and unfinished, as he claimed to be aiming at such a non-moral satire. So, aesthetic practice must proceed from what is really the most egalitarian practice of representation imaginable back to the center, and the “asymmetry” of placing someone or something at the center and projecting the oscillation of threat and vulnerability onto that individual. Eventually, the figure’s vulnerability is concentrated in high culture, and its threatening character in popular, and then mass, culture where we identify, as Gans says somewhere, with one or a few good guys killing lots of bad guys.


But originary satire would need to become part of the telos of the aesthetic in the kind of formalist integration of art into life I proposed above. It takes very little to frame another as vulnerable or threatening—in fact, we do it all the time, when we calculate advantages and try to neutralize the aggression of others. Representations in daily life that construct the oscillation between the two would institute a genuine model of deferral, though. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and “what is hateful to you do not unto another” were revolutionary moral advances at the time of their invention, but if you look at them took carefully they are thin, inconsistent, and capable of all kinds of cynical applications. What if others like what is hateful to me? I suppose we could move to the meta level and say, well, in that case, treat the maxim in a more complex manner and figure out is analogous, for the other, to what is hateful to you. At that point, though, we need another maxim. “When you see the other as threatening, imagine how he might be vulnerable; when he seems vulnerable, look for what might make him a threat” would be a much better source of moral reflection, as it would enable us to identify the role we play in constituting the other as victim or victimizer.


If originary satire is to provide our preliminary aesthetic framing of the other, we would then construct ourselves and others as centers so as to elicit signs of threat and vulnerability in the other, and continue our construction of these modes of centeredness so as to have what is threatening and vulnerable in us “match” that which we find in others. The other might be threatening physically, emotionally, or intellectually, which means that I present a vulnerability to that particular threat along with a threat of my targeting what I perceive as the other’s vulnerability, should he or she in fact prove a threat. It’s in both sides mutual interest to proceed in this way, which preserves the symmetry needed for interaction along with the difference needed for the generation of new signs. It would be a learning process, involving trial and error and constant revision. As we proceed in our interaction, we build trust by coming to constitute one another’s centrality primarily in terms of the other’s vulnerability, and to satirize one another less. Relapses are always possible, of course. (By the way, I don’t see this reciprocity exclusively in terms of modern social orders—I think that egalitarian hunting and gathering communities are probably extremely satirical in their dealings with each other.)


The aesthetic practice of everyday life involves, to use that phrase from Gans’s The Origin of Language, “lowering the threshold of significance.” We can always uncover new layers of threateningness and vulnerability, and potential layers, hypothetical layers, and so on. The aesthetic practices of everyday life would provide representations with at least a trace of this pre-aesthetic representation, resolving the oscillation into a center based on one pole or the other—resolving the oscillation this way more or less, depending upon how much originary satire can be borne in a given setting. The practice of non-moral satire, which aims at an elemental humanness, not simply to hurt and ridicule the other (because, if done right, the practitioner doesn’t escape either), but to represent the most basic materials of any moral order, would be an extremely important thing to teach children at an early age. It would discipline some of the cruelty and terrors to which children are liable and vulnerable; even more important, it would inoculate them strongly against taking their resentments in a socially transformative direction, since bred into them would be the knowledge that these human fundaments can’t be transformed.


The relation between “art” and “life,” then, would be bridged by the reciprocal satire of artist and audience. Any scene becomes an artistic scene insofar as it includes another scene as audience and co-creator, and which turns the artist into a sometime spectator as well—in the end, maybe we can’t tell the difference between one and the other, leaving us with pure oscillation. Social media and “meme-ing” already enact this kind of satirical oscillation, as bits and pieces of language are constantly taken out of their context and used to create other contexts in which anyone might have uttered those words. Imagine B, C, D, E and so on saying this X which A just said—this is an infinitely replicable form, which reveals something threatening/vulnerable about those we can’t imagine saying just as much as it does about those we can. Of course, the lack of any need for start-up funding is crucial here; and, of course, this also makes the “memers” highly vulnerable to the vagaries of leftist political ratcheting within the various platforms. But the “dial” on boundary abolishing originary satire can be turned up or down. If we think about artistic practices as shaping cultural participants, providing them with language and making them better language learners within the disciplines, originary satire should provide us with ways of thinking about dissemination and infiltration, which requires working just below the threshold at which the cultural censors are programmed to detect transgression.

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