"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Oct 15, 2010

The Law in the Box

Imagine a box:

Or a safe. Or a treasure chest. Whatever.

You do not have the combination or key to open it. You do not have the knowledge, contacts or skill to blow it up, or take it apart.

This box stays closed.

Inside the box, printed on a sheaf of paper, lined or unlined, embossed or unadorned according to your taste, you will find a commandment. A law. Well, you'd find it if you could open the box. Which you cannot.

This law may compel you to do something. It may forbid you from one or many behaviors. It may have fancy scroll work, and an excess of filigree serifs, fit for the court of a dandy prince, attendant at Versailles. It may instead possess the stark simplicity of a Calvinist injunction against dancing, written without flourish or the slightest indication that the author has ever known pleasure, to say nothing of joy.

It doesn't matter.

Because you cannot read the law. You do not know what its authors want. Hidden away in the box, the text illuminated by naught, and nothing, the law remains itself unknown.

So, trapped in this condition of perfect obscurity, what does the law actually do?

I submit: nothing.

The law has no power. Isolated in this box, unread - the law means nothing. It has no value unless human eyes read it.

And much, much more significantly - until human labor enforces it.

The law - any law, all laws - demonstrates the persistence of human belief in magic. Instead of seeing the labor, the belief, the hierarchies of control which actually constitute power and social relations, or the resources consumed and bargained in order to build up power - we see the law. The law obscures; words to mystify actions. As the cop's uniform covers his possession of weapons and the sanction of violence, or the priest's vestments hide his mastery of anxiety, fear and terror in the face of death and suffering- the law gives the wielder of it a mastery of misdirection. Like all practitioners of  magic, those who use the law use words to lie, to deceive, to confuse and obfuscate. They hold the law as a misdirection...

A man beats his wife. He slaps her upside the head, and terrorizes her into submission. Let's assume that the law permits his reprehensible conduct. By the fictions of grammar, his power over her receives the sanction of an actual belief in magic. He violates her very person, and words written down dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of miles away grant him the sanction of a word sorcery which allows him to do it again. Or simply to get away with it.

The law itself does nothing. It has no power. If we put it into a box and lose the key, no one can read it, to believe it, to use it as magic. But, as magic, it directs attention away from behavior, labor and action.

Believing it, those who might otherwise intervene on her behalf yield away their autonomy and self-direction.

Because even as fiction, even as word magic, even as an artifice imposed only on memory - it misdirects towards a very material reality. Power. By believing the law, by taking it out from the sealed box of ignorance and shining on to it the light of belief, a person or persons yield autonomy and choice to those who have and claim the power to enforce it...

Assume again - a man beats his wife, viciously or with the practiced hand of a calmly confidant perpetrator. This time the law forbids it. Nothing else has changed. Only now, his neighbors know that commands printed on a piece of paper authorize their effort. Now, believing the law, doing word magic in their heads, his neighbors intervene. They, with a firm faith in the sanction of words, give their labor; they restrain him, holding him until the uniforms arrive.

No other thing differs, but this magic done in the head.

This then, the law: the use of memory, often by repetition or visible enforcement, to program a person or people to believe that without sanction, or under the geas of  a compulsion, the capacity to act without permission does not exist, unless previously permitted.

Our work, as enemies of the law, and the power it conceals?

To produce and distribute as many boxes*, and types of boxes, in which to stash and hide away the words and magic of the law. And to disrupt, degrade or otherwise obstruct the repetition and enforcement of it, by any and all means necessary.

To encourage doubt in the efficacy of its enforcement by the intelligent, devious, sly, clever, mocking, irreverent, indirect and underhanded undermining of faith in the magic of words, as law, or the magic of sanction, as uniform, badge, title, accolade, position, rank or office.

Otherwise, we yield - and by doing so remove our labor from the factors the ruling factions must calculate and consider, giving them respite and reprieve when the deserve only opposition and disobedience...

* - so many options...

Added in edit and with all credit to dbzer0, because it seems relevant:



JM said...

There are charges of domestic abuse that are actually filed and responded to, you know. So your argument is odd.

Jack Crow said...


Anonymous said...

Gnats buzz around, make a funny sound.

In other news -- Good one, Jack. Especially good combined with JRB's latest entry. Excellent tag-team for making people think.

Did you notice the title of Sibel Edmonds' latest:

Thinking outside the box? No! Throw the Box Away!


These little accretions....

Marcus said...

Jack, I am truly embarrassed of my nominal species that you had to read the Fred Buffoon turddropping. Perhaps SMBIVA doesn't deserve the category "Insurrectionists and Non-cooperators," though I hope the primary contributors there don't share the same imbecility as Fred.

Picador said...

Fun! Let me try one:

"Humans beings - any human, all humans - demonstrate the persistence of human belief in magic. Instead of seeing the atoms, the molecules, the flows of energy which actually constitute the physical universe - we see the human being."

I'm not saying that your post is idiotic -- it's pretty much verbatim the speech delivered to every first-year law student some time in the first week of first-year courses -- but it only takes you as far as it takes you. Yes: law, money, property, social relations, personhood, language -- all "magic". All are abstractions, and all can misdirect from something more fundamental that's going on closer to the ground. But damn if some of them aren't useful when you've got specific kinds of problems to solve.

Jack Crow said...

I'm glad you had the benefit of a first year law course, Picador. It seems to have served you well.

But - I wasn't tilting at an abstraction. I aimed my keyboard - however rudimentary, for your tastes - at magical thinking. I can differentiate between an abstraction and a magical supposition.

Can you?

Picador said...

"I can differentiate between an abstraction and a magical supposition."

I'm not sure that the distinction between magical thinking and abstraction is a necessary one for your argument. Using my examples above, which would you classify as "magical" and which are not?

Like I said, all abstractions can serve to misdirect from more fundamental entities. Surely you'll agree that it's a form of magic for me to give a man a piece of paper and for him to labor on my behalf in return. Or for me to waive another piece of paper around and to have the tribal authorities forcibly remove, and thereafter forcibly exclude, other people from a piece of land.

But all language is magical in this sense. One monkey walks up to another, chirps a few sounds, and the second monkey starts sobbing uncontrollably, then wanders off to kill himself. What magical power did those sounds convey, that they elicit this kind of behavior?

I'm no great fan of magical thinking. Seriously. I remember getting into a fight with someone shortly after those London cops shot that Brazilian guy in the back of the head following the London subway bombings. I made the case that the popular response -- "Well, the cops have to do SOMETHING!" -- was a textbook example of magical thinking, and specifically that it relied on the principle of sympathetic magic whereby the ritual killing of a human being who shares some superficial characteristic of a natural danger or enemy will grant the priest and his congregation power over or protection from that threat. Magical thinking is pervasive and destructive, and you're right that it's especially prevalent among people who fetishize the law without actually understanding what it is. But the position you've taken here seems like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

We're stuck with a state for the time being. As Jefferson et al said in one of their better moments, it can either be a government of men (which had been the norm until then) or of laws. I know which one I like better, but I suppose YMMV.

Anonymous said...

Picador's comments make no sense, which ironically makes sense given that his posts seem intended to convey the idea that language = magical.

How wondrous the snarky obfuscation!

Jack Crow said...

I think your objection is to my rejection of the law as entirely mystical construct? That's the throwing out of the baby, to you, Picador?

Picador said...

I think your objection is to my rejection of the law as entirely mystical construct? That's the throwing out of the baby, to you, Picador?

Yes. Magic can be useful, as long as it isn't allowed to get out of control.

I'm not sure where we're disagreeing. Do you agree that money is also "entirely mystical"? Property? Contracts? Promises? Human relationships generally?

When I talk about someone being my "son", am I talking about that relationship as something real or is it just a magical invention?

Second question: if something is "magical" or "mystical", does that mean that it's bad or useless?