The Modern State
The machine emitted strange buzzing, whirring, and clicking sounds. The noises unsettled casual observers, but to the technician, it made beautiful music. She had listened to its movements so many times that she did not have to look at the monitor to pick out the slow set of clicks that marked the beginning of each cycle. Tck… Tck… Tck… Tck…
The machines had been a triumph over the archaic technology that came before it. It took the dreams of stargazers and a few steady hands to crank out the first prototypes. Even the wildly imperfect geometry of the early models still hypnotized onlookers.
She was charged with maintaining a machine from a newer line. The introduction of this version of the machines had ushered in a new era. In her land, authorities were crushed under the feet of rebelling peasants. As nobles bickered with the monarchy, a new class claiming to “represent the people” had seized power. But instead of quelling the waters, wars became more bloody. And there are still dissident factions trying to destroy the machines through sabotage or even cruder methods.
It is her task to keep the machine running. The rules are clear. Polarize the field. Alternate poles. Keep everything in orbit. She had been trained in basic geometric correction, which usually entailed resetting the aperture but sometimes required redacting elements. While no one told her how to control for the creeping tide of noise, she had come up with some makeshift bypasses. But if a long-term solution was eluding her, her fellow technicians were probably in just as much trouble…
Forging a Strange Complementarity
The political power of sovereignty goes through cycles. Imperial hymns sing of terrible kings’ conquests as well as the reigns of the great kings that follow. But let there be no mistake, terrible kings are only as stupid, brutish, ineffective, or disliked as good kings are inept, violent, and unpopular. That is because those labels merely indicate which of the two poles of sovereignty each ruler personifies. Horrible sovereigns are terrorizing magician-kings, and benevolent ones are jurist-priests. Much as the diplomat gets his way by switching between the carrot and the stick, sovereignty alternates between the two poles to maximize power. “Thus two kings in succession, by different methods, the one by war, the other by peace, aggrandized the state. Romulus reigned thirty-seven years, Numa forty-three: the state was both strong and well versed in the arts of war and peace” (Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 27). But the opposite is also true. A-cephalous societies evince a similar two-headed structure to ward off rather than reinforce State power. In the Americas, for instance, some groups had two chiefs, a war chief and a peace chief, whereby only one ruled at a time. Whenever one leader became too zealous, the people would mock him and follow the other leader. Especially in combination with the generalization of the ‘powerless’ titular king and the ritualization of war to disperse power rather than annihilate or enslave an opponent, these societies exemplify how the oscillations of sovereignty can be used against an accumulation of forces (Clastres, Society Against the State; Clastres, Archaeology of Violence).
Given the contrasting examples above, we can generalize by saying that the two poles of sovereignty form a complementarity. But the form and effects of that complementarity differ. Fortunately, the rhythm of the alternating poles produces a signature: the expression of the world that stands as the backdrop behind each State. A Roman ritual produces the clear signatures of the Priestly and Archaic States by repeating the practice of only allowing a single pole of sovereignty to rule at any given time: once a year, the flamen-dialis priest turns a blind eye for a day so that the naked Luperci can run wild and belt women with leather straps in a reenactment of the conquest of the Sabine women (Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, 27-30; 96-97). Obversely, the two poles can maintain independent signatures while remaining mutually reinforcing; for example, Varuna and Mitra nearly always exist as a pair in Vedic hymns. While the two gods are contemporaneous, or even co-present, they are still distinct and separate. So “Mitra may fasten you by the food,” but if a cow were bound without any special formula, “then she would be a thing of Varuna” because “the rope assuredly belongs to Varuna” (Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, 97; Satapatha Brahmana III 2, 4, 18). Yet the complementarities formed when the poles turn a blind eye, exist contemporaneously, or are a mixture of the two express a basic structure that can be easily extrapolated by elaborating on the Archaic and Priestly States. Other complementarities, however, produce State forms that do more than combine the poles: they pursue different effects by transforming the poles themselves. (more…)