16 March 2016

A Political Fragment

1.  Every act is the act of an agent.  Every agent acts out of its own nature, which determines its aptitude toward particular acts, and frames the bounds of its possibility.

2.  Human agents act out of their own, human nature, and that human nature is differentiated in each person by various accidental characteristics—things like memory, prejudice, habituation, and physiology.

3.  Man is a political animal.  This means first of all that humans are naturally social—they have relationships with other people.  But to be political is more than that.  Man is a political animal because his life (the set of activities and contexts which make up his everyday way of being) tends to be part of a stable order of dependencies and hierarchies, which constitute a whole, a community.  Man is a political animal because the structure of individual sociability tends to create political order. Wherever humans dwell, the polis soon appears, and with it law, culture, custom, ritual, and social differentiation.

4.  Political order arises from human relationships, between individual personalities.  Personalities are as complex as the experiences and desires of individual persons.  Because in the first instance political relationships are relationships between particular individuals, political order tends first of all to have a personal character, which is born out in most “primitive” societies.  Order and law are located in personalities and social bonds, rather than in the heavens or an abstract realm of ideas—or, the abstract realm of ideas and the heavens are themselves understood in ways that reflect the highly personal character of social order.  As below, so above.

5.  The stability of political order (which leads to the long-term inculcation of certain social positions, relationships, and dependencies) makes possible the emergence of categories of social behavior that are more particular, and less dependent on individual personalities.  The complexity of life which is so present in the rituals, customs, mores, and social hierarchies of primitive societies is gradually sifted and specialized.  In a large city or a developed society, each person needs to worry only about a few things, or perhaps just one thing.  The meaning of social positions is rarefied, creating large uniformities of social position and behavior, within which new currents of activity can develop.

6.  In the introduction to his book The Savage Mind, Claude Levi-Strauss puts forward a contrast between two modes of making and understanding, which he calls bricolage and engineering.  Bricolage is improvisational.  It takes a set of already available ideas and materials and crafts something out of them.  The product of bricolage cannot be conceived without taking note of the materials, and whatever results from bricolage bears within itself a dense array of existing significances, previous uses, and traditions.  Engineering, on the other hand, attempts to start from nothing.  The engineer’s materials are blank; his designs are imposed upon them without restriction.  The engineer is, ideally, a pure maker, whose works are purely artificial.  

7.  The practice or ideal of engineering is made possible over the long term by a certain tradition of bricolage.  It is out of the rarefaction and refinement of our narratives about the world that we make available the most abstract and universal concepts.  Likewise in social relations, the stratification of society, the division of labor, and the refinement of specialties make it possible for us to describe politics in terms no longer directly tied to the complexity of human personalities.

8.  One of the peculiar possibilities opened up through this process of abstraction or social rarefaction is the construction of new cosmic mythologies by groups occupying select social positions, using ready-to-hand concepts and narratives internal to them.