Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Comment on Ritual

This post is in many ways a follow up to the previous post on good and evil. The title however is a tribute to the late great Nation of Ulysses.

In his short book on an anarchist anthropology David Graeber says two seemingly contradictory things about Utopia. First, he issues a tiny manifesto against anti-utopianism (an anti-anti-utopian manifesto). Graeber’s point is fairly straightforward, since we cannot ultimately know if the world can be a better place, if we can live without hierarchy, exploitation, and domination, then we would be wrong to not at least try to improve things. As the epigraph to the book states, citing Jonothon Feldman, “Basically if you’re not a utopianist, you’re a schmuck.” It is only cowardice or an invested interest in the existing order that would lead one to present it as the only possibility.

Later, however, Graeber makes a fundamentally different point about utopia. This second point follows one of Graeber’s most significant theoretical points, so it is going to take a bit to set it up. Drawing from his own fieldwork and the ethnographic record, Graeber reflects on societies which are relatively egalitarian. While these societies are in predominantly governed by relations that are noncoercive and anti-hierarchal they have mythologies or religious that are characterized by violence and exploitation. Day to day life maybe characterized by relations of cooperation and consensus, marred “only” by gender inequality, but the supernatural world is characterized by violence, revenge, and the threat of constant unseen enemies.

Graeber draws two conclusions from this fact. First, following Pierre Clastres and Marcel Mauss he argues that non-market and non-state societies should not be understood as residing in some primitive antechamber to market and state societies, yet to develop these crucial institutions, but as actively warding off such societies. Gift economies, described famously by Mauss, are not simply an alternative to market societies, but actively ward off the accumulation of wealth and power that make the later possible. The same could be said of Clastres understanding of “societies against the state.” Proof of this is to be found in the violent mythologies of these otherwise egalitarian societies; such societies are not ignorant of the “evils” of humanity, the capacity for domination, they merely relegate such possibilities to the imagination, to myth and religion.

This leads to Graeber’s second point, the one which relates to the question of utopia. The fact that such societies do not completely dispense with domination and violation means that these are unavoidable, they can be situated in fantasy, but not dispensed with altogether. As Graeber writes: “There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem. However much they might differ on what they deem the problem to be, at the very least, the existence of work, sex, and reproduction are seen as fraught with all kinds of quandaries; human desires are always fickle; and then there’s the fact we’re all going to die…Indeed, the fantasy that it might, that the human condition, desire, mortality, can all be somehow resolved seems to be an especially dangerous one, an image of utopia which always seems to lurk somewhere behind the pretentions of Power and the state.” I must admit that it is a little frustrating that Graeber uses the term “utopia” in such opposed ways in the same short text, once to refer to the possibility of a better world and a second time to the unrealizable nature of a complete realization of that possibility. (Two bring to otherwise unrelated thinkers into relation, Graeber’s point here is similar to Badiou’s idea of the unnamable or the evil of dogmatism) Despite this contradiction, or rather because of it, Graeber’s point is a fairly consistent agnosticism with respect to human nature. Between the two invocations of utopia, one optimistic the other pessimistic, there is an idea of a human nature the limits and possibilities of which cannot be known.

In Graeber’s argument there is thus an echo of Emma Goldman’s counter-argument to the opposition to anarchism based on human nature. As Goldman writes:

But what about human nature? Can it be changed? And if not, will it endure under Anarchism? Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed? John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

Such an agnosticism with respect to human nature underlies “weak” conceptions of social construction. The idea being quite simply that we have never seen humans outside of this or that social context, so we never grasp human nature just this or that social political articulation of it. The trouble is that this particular sword cuts both ways, uncaged human nature may be Hobbes’ wolf or Rousseau’s noble savage. Last semester some of my students, eternal pessimists that they are, always looking for new apologies of the existing order, argued vehemently that uncaged man might simply be much worse.

In the recently published Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, Paolo Virno expands upon his remarks in the essay “Anthropology and the Theory of Institutions.” The central point is still the connection between good and evil, rooted in the radical indeterminacy of the human animal. As Virno writes:

Both “virtue” and “evil” require a deficit of instinctual orientation, and they feed off the uncertainty experienced in the face of “that which can be different from the way it is”; this is how Aristotle (Ethics) defines the contingency that distinguishes the praxis of the “animal in possession of language.”

The solution to this predicament is not to resolve this condition, to impose a law that would annul once and for all this indeterminacy with the categorical command to obey. Nor is it to liberate or realize human nature, which quite simply is nothing other than the indeterminacy of any specific nature. Rather, for Virno, the solution has to return to and rearticulate this fundamental indeterminacy. Institutions only protect us if they articulate rather than dispense with this fundamental ambivalence of the human condition: an excess of stimuli coupled with a deficit of determination, what is often referred to as an opening to a world. The examples Virno gives of this are language and ritual, with language being in some sense the clearest example. As Virno writes:

Language is also more natural and more historical than any other institution. More natural: unlike the world of fashion or of the State, the foundation of language lies in a “special organ prepared by nature,” or in that innate biological disposition that is the faculty of language. More historical: while marriage and law fit into the category of certain natural givens (sexual desire and the raising of children, for the former; symmetry of exchanges and the proportionality between damage and compensation for the latter), language is never bound to one of the other objective sphere, but it concerns the entire experience of the animal open to the world—the possible no less than the real—the unknown—as well as the habitual.

Virno coins a term historico-natural for such institutions as language in ritual, which address the fundamental fact of human existence, its indeterminacy, in historical specific ways. Every ritual, every common place of language, touches upon its indeterminacy and artifice in its very articulation. “The oscillation between the loss of presence and its act of reestablishing itself characterizes every aspect of social practice. The ambivalence between symptoms of crisis and symbols of redemption pervade the average everyday life.” Ultimately, Virno uses this to redefine multitude, as that which puts this historico-natural combination in maximum tension, but he also uses this to redefine the current conjuncture. It is that which I would like to conclude with.

Given that every human institution is caught between the indeterminacy that is its foundation and the regularity it would like to invoke, we can describe the present as characterized by both a defect and an excess of semanticity. We are caught between norms without justification, without sense, the structures of the market and institutions, and an excess of chatter, silent rules and ineffective words. Our problem is not action, but how to make action matter, to break free of both the senseless necessity of the market and the endless chatter of the public.

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