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Observational Notes on Nomic Performance (or, Watching Crispies in Their Blinders)
– February 12, 2013

This is both a presentation and exploration of ideas.

Actual event at the local Starbucks: two young guys all 'full of energy for Christ," as it is said, talking up a storm to each other about their religion and proselytizing therefor, with all sorts of facts and verses, including geology, Indian (that is, Asian-Indian) culture, a reference to who I think was supposed to be Kant (but who really knows) and somehow, the months of the Jewish calendar -- I couldn't follow how that worked its way in. Yet, both players were grossly ignorant about their beliefs, about doctrine and dogma, about the world, philosophy, even about the Bible.

Indeed, it is a somewhat perverse pleasure of mine to listen to conversations between people who know nothing about that about which they are talking; that is, up to the point of sudden infuriation. I have learned a lot about language, knowledge, psychology, and even the subjects in discussion by doing such. But, in truth, the astounding ignorance of the two young men is unimportant to the event as I want to approach it: that is, from the recognition that what was really going on was the performance and reception of basic herd mentality: two members of the herd in mutual "full of energy" self- and companion-assuring that "I am X," "you are X," "we are X," and "X is real."

This is something I’ve seen and heard many times, both eavesdropping from the abutting chair (as here) and as part of the conversational group. (And, also, watching from the sidelines, as with street preachers, who are almost always performing this particular mode of drama.) It is exaggerated in situations such as this, where the ignorance of the speakers is neon-bright glaring; but, it is in no way exclusive to such. It is only, with the more knowledged, less obvious to those not paying attention, or those not knowing to what to pay attention.

Though, I will say, it is my observation that from the greater the degree of ignorance involved in the discussion there follows the greater the emotional fervor. My thought as to why: because where someone is speaking out of ignorance – I am making an important distinction here between someone who is trying to sound knowledged but is not and someone who is not knowledged and recognizes and respects their limits – there arises a cognitive dissonance in their psyche, one that is affirmed by their interaction with other people and the resulting self-awareness of their inability to successfully perform ‘knowledge.’ That cognitive dissonance is quelled through emotion.

There is another direction at the same time, which is an established aspect of cognitive dissonance: it is a kind of infinite loop. But that is insufficient to the moment: a person speaks beyond their knowing. Dissonance arises. In that they are speaking their reality, the dissonance is pointing out the presence of a threat to the stability of that reality (the dissonance itself being both a threat and a result of threats): the speaker’s own inability to successfully speak the believed truth of reality. As such, emotion comes in: to shorten the phrase, if you can’t pound the facts you pound the table. But that emotion is insufficient, an ersatz remedy to the lack of knowledge, which increases the power and depth of the dissonance, which increases the energy, etc., until energy, emotion, becomes the primary means of conversation.

This is a great reason why it is that those persons most ignorant about their own religion and their own reality tend to be the most vociferous as concerns both; and those that are the most assured tend to speak the most softly.

And, why, emotional explosions are not uncommon when you do prod – with any success – these believed truths: Any attack upon a nomos will evoke emotion; after all, it is an attack upon a person’s reality. The emotion is all the greater in situations such as here, when that reality is already so weak, and so emotionally patched together.

Keep this in mind, you corruptors of minds: you can not ‘win’ such confrontations rationally, nor are you supposed to;[FN] winning is the creating of cracks, not the reaching of conclusions. There is nothing to gain with pushing the emotions; and much to lose. And, lest I forget, question always: is your own emotion merely revealing your own assurances in your own nomic realities?

[FN] That is, up to the point where they are wanting the rational through which to create a new nomos in replace of the one they are in the process of abandoning. But, even then, in the adductive nature of many arguments, emotion is often still pre-eminent. Only, now, what is wanted is the emotion of assuredness.

I would be willing to bet that if you could go back through history, it would be near universal that those persons who had found higher levels of spirituality – which is to say were able to live a deeply aesthetic life – rarely if ever raised their voice in conversation or debate (except in the joy of dramatic performance), recognizing that there was no point in it, and that doing so was as much self-accusation as not.


A misconception: pleasure. One of the distinctions between the nomic and the aesthetic is that the word pleasure is associated tightly with the aesthetic (in theoretic circles you’ll come upon :jouissance), which is natural since the aesthetic is about experience, where the nomic is about world building through fact. But it is false to think that nomic performance precludes the idea of pleasure: there is, very much, a pleasure to the performance of the nomic. It is the pleasure of assurance: the pleasure of being right-in-a-right-world; the pleasure of knowing what is real and what is not, what is good and what is evil; and, as seen here, the pleasure of knowing ‘I am part of this group; I am welcomed here; I am safe here”; which is to say, "I am X," "you are X," "we are X," and "X is real."

Most simply, it is that universal pleasure of being right.

(And, going back to my hypothetical about spiritual persons of the past, would it not be correct to say that the more spiritual an individual, the more aesthetic their life, the less their need to be ‘right’?)

This is no small thing: it is a necessary part of our psyche, a very deep and primal pleasure. We are, after all, of two natures: the group/cultural self, and the individual self. And if we could not find pleasure in the assurance of our own reality – even if, as free spirits, that reality is always in question, and never tightly held – we would be in a sorry state indeed. There must be a rock to stand on in the chaos. The difference between the nomic and the aesthetic is that nomic energies are spent in constant reassurance of that single rock, of the constancy of that rock, of the reality of that rock, whereas, with the aesthetic, that rock exists only insofar as it serves the moment; it is changeable, interchangeable, and, at times, abandon-able. [FN]

[FN] And thus, the Rg Veda 1.164.46" "To what is One, sages give many a title.”

An important philosophical-literary moment to this, a moment that presents itself in a perhaps different way through the lens of the previous: yes, Zarathustra goes back to his mountain, having been reassured that the people of the world are thick as bricks and unable to understand or even hear his teachings of the free spirit; yet he knows he will again discard that part of his evidenced nomos, and come down again from the mountain, as he has already many times before. And thus the endless optimism of Nietzsche.


Another observation: the use of fact, even in the face of obvious ignorance. Is it obvious ignorance? Or, is that ignorance hidden to the self through a change – or limiting – of the very notion of “fact”? That is, is fact here replaced with a wholly capable substitute: shibboleth. Is there, in herd mentality, a necessity, a requirement, for a rational structure of thought existing behind and connecting brute fact? One more time, need facts function within a greater, rational whole, or can they function nomically on their own, as points unconnected to a rationally developed system? In example, is it enough to be able to recite a Bible verse, knowing only – and very loosely at that – that it is at that point in the conversation applicable?

An experiment I have occasionally offered up to my students, to no small success; an experiment that is very easy to perform, and needs only a little situational luck to come to fruition. When you are in a bar (or restaurant, or school or church function, or other social gathering), especially at a time where there are no energies pushing people toward a certain purpose, when everyone is there simply to congregate and enjoy each other’s company, pay attention to how people talk to each other. (This becomes easier if you pay attention to people in groups around you, as, in the manner of the sociological, it is not unlikely that you will contaminate the experiment as it applies to your own group.)

You will notice that there is a high degree of occurrence of two events. First, you will hear phrases and conversational moments that are common from group to group, moment to moment. Of course, there are variations on the theme, but you will get the idea. Obviously, the ‘greeting’ process of someone new coming up to the group is an example, but so obvious a one that it serves little to the experiment. More interesting is watching what follows, how that person then integrates themselves into conversational group, and how the group brings the person in. You will see a great degree of performance of the phatic element of conversation: the making and maintaining of connection between speakers/groupmembers. (At its most basic, the need in a two-person conversation to assure that the other person is paying attention, and to assure the other person that you are talking to them.)

Second, and this isn’t wholly separable from the first, is to notice just how much of the conversation serves no real informational or communicative purpose, but is nigh wholly dedicated to that phatic end. I have watched a table of people talk for an hour if a minute without actually ever saying anything communicative: the whole purpose of the conversation is merely to establish and maintain the existence of that temporary grouping – a temporary herd, as it were.

As I said, my students have come back speaking of great success with this experiment. It is very useful from the teaching side to show how language can, to a great degree, have little more than a phatic function. In fact, I argue – though argue mostly to present the idea as I do not have the means to develop more than casual support for it – that the phatic is the primary mode of nomic language; and, not only mode, but purpose. That language, in its social sense, arose not out of the individual will to communicate, but our of the herd need to assure. [FN]

[FN] Back in the classroom, it is also effective as an aid to getting students to pay attention to how much of their own language – especially in their writing – come out of the habits of such purposes. Very fruitful, especially with poetry writing.

Whether that hypothesis is true or to what degree it is true is irrelevant to this exploration. What it does do, though, within this context, is to act as an aid to pointing out that, in conversation, the communication of fact/idea can be subservient to the performance of phatic assurance: i.e., the performance of "I am X," "you are X," "we are X," and "X is truth."

As such, fact being anchored in a rational system of knowledge becomes far less necessary than one would think to far more types of conversation than one might realize. There need only be the performance of such embedding for nomic language to enact its reality-affirming function and create that ‘pleasure of assurance’ that gives the conversation the feeling of argumentative success. [FN]

[FN] A great place to witness this is in a classroom where open discussion of a point changes from exploration to affirmation of belief. ‘Learning’ is over at that point – unless you can successfully shift point of view of the discussion to get its participants to see that that shift to affirmation has, indeed, occurred. Then, again, wonderfully fruitful.

This is, actually, the basis of a joke seen so often on film and TV the punch line is now part of common parlance: specifically, that scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles where John Candy and Steve Martin awake after a night sharing a bed in a position that compromises the nomic reality of their masculinity. They jump up out of bed and one of them says “How ‘bout them Bears?!” (if I remember correctly). It is irrelevant the greater rational context of that statement, irrelevant even whether either of them actually give a rats ass about the Chicago Bears. What is important is the performance of an utterance that reaffirms the compromised nomos: That is, “I am masculine,” “you are masculine,” “I recognize you as masculine,” and, when the utterance is correctly responded to, “you recognize me as masculine”; and, most importantly, “our concept of masculinity is reality, and that reality is capital-T Truth.”

Thus we can go back to my statement at the very beginning: the fact that the so obvious ignorance of my neighbor gentlemen was irrelevant to the basic event: that of nomic reassurance. The event is demonstrated over and again – to keep it in a religious context – in the church service, which is so overwhelmingly a phatic event. Indeed, I would argue, the two primary purposes of the weekly church service is (1) the phatic assurance of the church’s social unity (the assurance of the existence and identity of the herd); and (2) the weekly reaffirmation of the church’s culture (the assurance of the reality of that church’s beliefs). From out that you have a very interesting exploration of the at times extreme methods of Protestant Fundamentalism, Mormonism, and Scientology toward maintaining those two nomic necessities. And, a very interesting exploration of how “us-not-them” functions in church identity, and how “us-not-them” changes to the degree that the church culture becomes an aesthetic culture.

I recently have had pointed out to me (in passing) the book You Lost Me by David Kinnaman, a book analyzing the migration of young adults away from the Christian church. It is my want to read and respond to the book at some point; currently I have only read that chapter which is available for preview on Amazon/Kindle. But I have a great feeling (not unsupported by the preview) that the Kinnaman is writing out of the wrong side of the argument: he is questioning why are young people rejecting the Christian nomos, and positing as an answer new methods to reaffirm that nomos; when, he should be questioning, is there a problem with the contemporary Christian nomos. (To which I say, yes: it is so very nomic.)

Considering that when you look around in the world, the loudest and most visible representatives of Christianity tend to be either fundamentalist/conservative elders desperately trying to blindly re-affirm a nomos that has long lost its cultural sustainability, or effervescent youth (and others) who walk about preaching the ‘joy of Christ’ out of an unbelievable and unhidden degree of ignorance and self-blindness, it is no wonder people in the U.S. are leaving Christianity in droves (and right at that time that their forebrains are developing, and they would be rejecting the notion that “you should accept this truth simply because your superiors say it is true”).

It will be interesting to see if my hunch pans out. But that is for another day.