Adam Katz on Ostensive Freedom, the Resolving Mechanism of Political Crisis.

Adam’s imperial politics against Gans’ declarative politics: 

Resentment toward imperatives is well grounded in, perhaps even constitutive of, the liberal and democratic political traditions, and a declarative politics, that is, the subordination of commands to deliberation, is the manner in which that resentment is generalized and made explicit.


Viewing imperatives as necessary evils doesn’t serve to integrate imperatives into a declarative order, and this seems to me a serious weak point in liberal political thinking.


How has it happened, and how does it continue to happen, that some of those who issue imperatives are willing to act against others who do so in the name of “toothless” declaratives?

Freedom is predicated on spontaneous ostensive signing, which itself is required to interconvert imperatives and declaratives: 

Ostensive freedom must be brought to bear in conjoining the declarative with the imperative.


Through such affirmations we re-enact the transcendence of the horizontal and the founding of the community. Similarly, changes in the laws governing the internal affairs of institutions administered by strict chains of command must be “registered” through modifications in the publicly known procedures by which commands are issued.  There must be ways, in other words, of demonstrating, verifying and authenticating the channels by which declaratives are translated into imperatives and vice versa, and all this must involve an ostensive dimension: someone must “point” to a legitimate act in order to “seal” its legitimacy, we must all be able to point to the one who has pointed, and so on.

Since without such scenic verification freedom would surely be lost [ostensive signing], it seems to me a valid project, then, to see whether we might direct the attention of (originary) political thinking to the seemingly narrow task of distinguishing among various modes and degrees of “translatability”—or, as I prefer, “convertibility” of imperatives and declaratives.

The most urgent problem is with the convertibility of imperatives: those imperatives that could be recast as consequent upon a declarative, or a general claim asserting some regular set of relationships and possibilities in social reality, would be those most readily integrated into a deliberative order.  Imperative freedom would in turn be recast as the defense of that order.  Our sense of declarative freedom, meanwhile would be sharpened by the implicit criterion “demanding” that the assertion of any observation or principle regarding liberal society be itself compatible with the norms of imperative freedom upon which that society depends.


Political sacralities emerge when one demonstrates a willingness to confirm or authenticate the conversion of an imperative into a declarative or a declarative into an imperative; and the degree of sacrality is higher the more necessary such confirmation or authentification is in the situation and the less “basis” there is for it in the existing procedures of authentification.  This indicates a willingness to be a scapegoat, and whether one will be hero, scapegoat, or just goat can be ascertained only after the fact.


One thereby assumes that there is a principle to one’s action—a new declarative—but one that can be fully formulated only after the fact, by a spectator. There is a paradox at the heart of such action: offering oneself up as a possible scapegoat (while evincing no—while disciplining ones’ actions and the signs one emits so as to defer any—desire to be scapegoated) requires intricate, if largely tacit knowledge of the “field” one is entering, and it subsequently generates knowledge regarding the current state of society; but, the more free the act, the more one makes oneself available to and dependent upon the unreserved ostensive affirmations of others, the less anyone, including oneself, can know what one is going to do next and what it is going to mean.

Imperatives are an ever-present feature of even liberals’ lives: 

If we think about it, we order ourselves around quite a bit, and that has quite a bit to do with what makes us free. Second, though, and perhaps more controversially, we “receive” impersonal imperatives quite frequently: an examination of how often people claim to be taking orders from entities such as “history,” “society,” and “reality” would be extraordinarily revealing, and not merely for the purposes of “demystification”—after all, what imperative are we following when we demystify?

More importantly, I don’t see a better way of describing whatever it is that makes us come to the defense of a victim of injustice than that we are following an imperative coming from where we cannot quite tell.  We can only get better at hearing and assessing such imperatives if we learn how to listen for them.

‘Civil society’ as the elaboration of the imperative: 

Grammatically speaking, the progress of civil society involves increasing the convertibility of imperatives into declaratives.  This doesn’t imply a lesser reliance upon imperatives, which are simply unavoidable across enormous swaths of social life (and, for that matter, psychological, inner life).

Rather, the point is that imperatives must become ever more translatable, by those who are to execute, enforce, and obey them, into declaratives—”Because I said so” (a barely declarative iteration of the force already implicit in the imperative) must give way to “Because I have been duly authorized by those you have duly authorized to superintend this process” (a declarative reference to a consensual reality enabling the imperative).

‘Civil society’ as the elaboration of consent: 

Whatever the circumstances, what results from such an “imperative crisis” is an event which concludes with the acknowledgement that that “kind” of imperative can no longer be obeyed while another “kind” of imperative (even one as minimal as “don’t obey that other kind”) has been ostensively verified as “valid” (it was seen to resolve the crisis).  The difference will lie in the greater convertibility and hence flexibility of the new imperative and the “imperative center” erected upon it.

The new imperative order, at the very least, comes with a justification and narrative (a declarative) along the lines of “this is what happened when we obeyed without question the old imperative,” thus establishing at least minimal criteria and scope for argument and assessment of imperatives compatible with the new order and candidates qualified to issue those imperatives.  Hence, an increase in the quality and quantity of consent.

Liberalism is that system which failed to consciously interconvert the declarative and the imperative, justifying itself through a distended declarative reality, a metaphysics, but it is reaching a point of linguistic transudation: 

In its specifically political and civil form, liberalism had to begin by confronting, by directing resentment towards, some particularly odious restrictions on freedom and equality, which is to say, unconvertible imperatives.  Liberalism, furthermore, could only advance the same way—by locating new or hitherto unnoted obstacles to freedom. Different forms of liberalism will offer different answers to the question, obstacles to what, exactly?  That is, where is the presently unrealized freedom/equality located?  What is the unconvertible imperative forbidding?

For metaphysical liberalism, the answers are to be found in pre-existing reality.  This assumption is what connects what seem to be the very different forms of politics I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  For the liberals of the Enlightenment, up through the thinking of the American founders, human beings are naturally self-interested and therefore given to violence when different interests collide; they are simultaneously capable of reasoning, calculating possible consequences beyond the sphere of immediate desires, and can hence transcend the conflicts to which their self-interest inevitably leads.


Transnational progressives extend this logic to the globe, but the continuity is deceptive: White Guilt represents the turn within liberalism toward an overwhelming concern with restricting putative obstacles to freedom (tyranny, but also the false hopes, fears and prejudices that support tyranny), a concern that in previous, more optimistic forms of liberalism seemed temporary, but now seems indelibly inscribed in and, through some fateful historical wrong turn, to be inseparable from the very concepts of freedom and equality themselves.

The historical dead end of White Guilt, then, is the dead end of metaphysical liberalism.  If we see freedom as taking orders from a known reality (whether Human Nature or the evolutionary Historical Process), then our politics is determined by resentment towards those who deviate from whatever model of reality we are working with.

A new discourse, a new consensual reality, is required to resolve the congestion caused by the imperatives derived from Whig historiography: 

The originary liberalism I am calling marginalism seeks to find another path for the “arts” of equality and freedom by accepting the need to continually invent and create forms and representations of “equaliberty” or “isonomy.”


In originary liberalism, or marginalism, we are no longer seeking to know the reality from which we could take our orders; reality is indeed full of imperatives, and metaphysical liberalism has been a rich cataloguing of many of them, but we aim at deferring the implementation of the general imperatives that oppose some obstacle to our freedom in order to allow for the gathering of some irreconcilable imperatives which could only be reconciled in a new and more freely joined reality.


Marginalism is interested, then, in the disproportion between “units” of change (which are recognizable as units only after the fact) and shifts in “levels” of reality; marginalism in politics is interested in those infinitesimal shifts in consent wherein displacements of obedience away from one imperative center dissolve the order it supports and displacements to some new imperative install another, emergent center, capable, first of all, of supporting an exchange of declaratives (deliberation aimed at determining a new mode of authenticating imperatives) regarding the viability of the respective orders.

The identification of such “units” is always a matter of trial and error, but the defining feature of a marginalist politics is that we are always trying (and often erring)—this involves holding in reserve some margin of obedience to imperative centers supported by even the most free civil society, and doing so as a kind of instrument for registering the limits of the prevailing imperative order.

Chiasmatic construction of new declaratives: 

What we all have standing to do as citizens, though, is to put forth ostensives, to attempt to draw attention to some new object, to propose new patterns of paying attention.  We can seek to instigate or accelerate an imperative crisis in our fellow citizens, and then try to construct declaratives that resolve that crisis by obeying ourselves the emergent imperatives of a new imperative center.


As a political thinker, that is where I want to be: that is where I find a full exercise of my freedom, on the threshold of various possible new imperative orders.


Metaphysical liberalism is “programmed” to identify discrepancies between an abstract model of equality and actuality, and issues imperatives demanding the abolition of institutions and beliefs even tangentially related to such discrepancies and deviations.  Originary liberalism, or marginalism, responds to such discrepancies by trying to establish “platforms” upon which equality can be practiced and staged so as to affirm the tacit relation between declaratives and imperatives implicit in the legitimacy of those institutions.

Metaphysical liberalism progressively narrows and intensifies the range of acceptable imperatives, which must compel action against some form of “privilege,” however deviously hidden or disguised; marginalism preserves the complementarity of the declarative and imperative, by increasing their reciprocal convertibility while preserving the separateness of their respective functions.

The narrativity of imperative orders: 

In turn, new horizontal associations become possible once the vertical hierarchies embedded in the old imperative order become problematic; these new associations are generated by the new shared ostensives, and the emergent imperative order is first of all concerned with defending those ostensives and the scenes and associations organized around them.  These new ostensive-imperative articulations must first of all be figured.  As the new margin becomes visible as an alternative site of loyalty, we are not yet at the point where there could be any intelligible principles, except, perhaps, inadequate ones redirected from the existing order.

The new imperatives will always be to protect, to rescue, to remember someone and some event that marked the crisis of the existing imperative center.  The creation of a new principle, then, is the production of a new political “syntax,” one that links the emergent ostensive-imperative articulations with criteria for identifying new articulations and for “generalizing” from them toward the establishment of institutions that would prevent such “illegitimate” acts.  In other words, we are equal to the extent that we all verify ostensively the convertibility of the imperative we will obey or have obeyed.


Marginalism is, in the first instance, a refusal of victimary blackmail (such blackmail being the new imperative authorized by the revelations registered in Holocaust theology) and, in the second instance, the desire for an alliance with the victims of our “victims” (thereby revealing the imperative center licensed by Holocaust theology as defunct).  Such a political faith has its taboos as well, and will undoubtedly become exhausted and transcended in turn, but for now the richness of possibilities it embodies is more profound than its limitations.

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