The sign designates what is there in such a way that it is no longer necessary for it to be present. The linguistic sign has vanishingly little substance; it is part of a system within which even “motivated” (generally, indexical) signs become arbitrary. When, on the contrary, the sign possesses a substance that makes us return to it rather than traverse it toward its meaning/signified, we speak of it as esthetic. All signs may be said to possess an esthetic component or potential. In language, poetry famously exploits this potential; to affirm with Vico that the earliest language is poetry is to affirm the esthetic character of all language. Yet although all representation is esthetic, we should not neglect the fact that certain works are esthetic not merely intentionally but institutionally. Just as La Rochefoucauld remarked that few people would fall in love if they hadn’t heard about loving, few people would appreciate beauty–even sexual beauty–had they never heard of art.
It follows from the originary hypothesis that the ethical is the primary dimension in human affairs: the esthetic modalities of a given period extrapolate from (rather than merely “reflecting”) the modes of human interaction in the society as a whole. The primacy of the ethical over the esthetic is not akin to the rigid Marxist determinism of cultural “superstructure” by economic “base.” Although exchanges within the economic system (“production relations”) arguably lend themselves more easily to modeling than those of society at large, from the outset, economic exchange presupposes the exchange of representations, whether between participants in tribal ritual, imperial officials and subjects, lords and vassals, or the free agents of bourgeois civil society, whose different roles in the production process are secondary to their de jure equality as citizens.
Great ethical changes lead to new esthetics. Perhaps the most significant such change, the rise of Christianity, divides the esthetic of modernity from that of the classical era. The more tentative watershed that we are experiencing today is that between the postmodern and a new post-millennial era whose esthetic Raoul Eshelman calls performative. Because this transition involves historical events fresh in our memories, defining our models of these periods can serve as an exemplary exploration of the relationship between art and history.
The years following WWII witnessed the birth of a new ethical epistemology, informed by the post-Holocaust revelation not simply that all deviations from the moral model of symmetrical relations are evil, but that these relations may be assimilated to the persecutor-victim relationship. This transformation, which put an end to colonialism, segregation, and apartheid, is also a revolution in fundamental anthropology. The center-periphery distinction that structures the scene of representation is revealed as posing an ineluctable quandary to the moral model of universal human reciprocity. Unlike Rousseau’s social contract, which transforms the entire group into a spectacle for itself on the model of God whose center is everywhere and periphery nowhere, the victimary model affirms the dependency of the peaceful relations of the “first world” of whites, males, straights, and so on, on the exclusion of its “third world,” non-white, female, gay Other.
The political implications of the postmodern vision explain the extreme antinomianism of intellectual life during this period. The political stance of the postmodern intelligentsia has moved ever farther from the norm in European countries, and still farther in the United States, famously indifferent to socialist rhetoric. Whatever the intellectual powers of Noam Chomsky or Jacques Derrida, Susan Sontag or Fredric Jameson, their model of “late capitalism” in which a greedy, unscrupulous elite rules multitudes numbed into submission by mass culture and the spoils of imperialism has little explicative value. This Procrustean application of victimary epistemology to democratic market society reflects the difficulty of assimilating the Holocaust within the historical dialectic.
At its crudest, the art that corresponds to this victimary vision merely inverts the direction of violence, whether the new scapegoats be the Nazis themselves, the demonic nazifiers of Ludlum-variety novel and cinema, or, a bit more subversively, everyday authority-figures who, at the height of the postmodern era in the late sixties, were commonly assimilated to sacrificial animals (“off the pigs!”) or violators of our deepest taboo (“up against the wall, m…”).
But there is a genuine postmodern esthetic. While Samuel Beckett avoids victimage par en bas by offering an unworthy target–proud Pozzo declines, but Godot ’s humble clowns go on–Marguerite Duras, more subtly, discovers the power of the victim’s position. After Hiroshima mon amour (1961) transforms the losers of WWII into victims (the only casualties are those of Hiroshima and the German soldier loved by the heroine), Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964) radicalizes Proust’s lesson of the de-realizing effect of desire through the intuition that the most stable and therefore most powerful vertex of the triangle of desire is that occupied by the defeated rival. Postmodern history has amply demonstrated Lol’s truth in both the political and the intellectual spheres.
The best-known theoretical counterpart to the victimary esthetic is deconstruction, the creation of Jacques Derrida, who theorizes in infinite detail the sacrificial structure of the scene of representation while ignoring its anthropological etiology. But the postmodern era is also that of René Girard, whose discovery of the “triangular” structure of mimetic desire that defines humanity both individually and collectively makes him the most powerful thinker of the age–demonstrated if only by the fact that its intelligentsia, unable to refute his ideas, has done its best to ignore them. Girard is to thought what Duras and a few others are to fiction: a revealer of the power of the victimary, which is also (but not entirely) the rediscovery of the original intuition of Christianity.
In the victim-persecutor relation, the persecutor gains only what the victim loses. Thus the victimary conception of justice is redistributive: inequalities, whether of wealth or opportunity, must be evened out as much as possible. John Rawls ingeniously conceived his “original position” to determine the redistributive optimum. Unlike Marxism, which sees the motivating force of economic productivity driving social evolution toward eventual equality, victimary thinking is ahistorical, condemning inequalities without explaining them. Effective in eliminating institutions such as slavery or racial segregation where historical explanations only confuse the issue, it is unhelpful in dealing with the de facto economic asymmetries of market society.
The victimary system has depended since the beginning on the white guilt of the purported victimizer, whose encounter with the Other’s resentment, whether directly, or, more commonly, as interpreted by a sympathizer, forces him to see his relationship to this Other as a violation of the moral principle of reciprocity. The subaltern status of the colonized generates white guilt, if not in the colonist himself, then certainly in his countrymen at home. The colonist may claim to be acting in his charges’ best interest, and perhaps he is, but this does not invalidate the assimilation of their relationship to the persecutor-victim model. White guilt, far more than the revolutionary power of the oppressed, has been the motor of historical change throughout the postmodern era. In the absence of such guilt, the motor stalls.
Victimary thinking fails to understand that, in principle, even asymmetric exchange within a market system is profitable to both parties. The key expression here, of course, is in principle. But rejecting victimary thinking does not imply denying the existence of injustice. (The Milosevic trial illustrates the growing international intolerance for “crimes against humanity.”) What it does imply is that, in the present state of world history, the most effective solution to all but the most unambiguous complaints of injustice lies in considering them not as proofs of victimage but as claims to be negotiated.
We are now, I believe, entering a new historical phase; the new millennium coincides with the discrediting of the great twentieth-century prophecies of the “final conflict” that would do away with conflict itself, where the sacrificial structure of the scene of representation would apocalyptically sacrifice its very sacrificiality. To the postmodern esthetic, serious or ludic, that deconstructs the “phallogocentric” scene of representation while recognizing that it cannot for all that be abolished, the post-millennial era opposes its “performatist” affirmation of the scene, warts and all, as the instrument of human historicity. Instead of Beckett’s ironic conception of desire as a zero-sum game whose stakes we can at best try to minimize, the new perspective sees the desiring imagination as continually creative of value, both cultural and economic.
Perhaps the most significant sign of the wane of the victimary is the increasing “global reach” (to use President Bush’s term) of terrorism, in conjunction with its replacement of specific political aims with a wholesale rejection of modernity. Terrorism is the most extreme form of victimary behavior; it is predicated on the confidence that even the most heinous crime is justifiable because its random victims were all at least passive accomplices in victimization. As the negative of white guilt, terrorism is exacerbated by its failure to inspire it.
Hindsight leads us to reproach previous US administrations with insufficient attention to the terrorist threat. But one need not be a defender of Clinton’s generally feckless foreign policy to note that, before September 11, terrorism was broadly understood in terms of the victimary paradigm, as an unpleasant but understandable product of the frustrations of real victims. The pontifications of those who continue to insist on this paradigm now appear in such places as the “Idiocy Watch” of the moderate-liberal New Republic.
The only real novelty is the scale of the attacks–or rather, of their success, for similar mayhem had been planned before. Several thousand deaths concentrate the mind by providing a warning call that global terrorism is not restrained by the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction. The fact that terrorism, the ultimate expression of the victimary, has become a danger to humanity that can no longer be tolerated, casts discredit on the victimary paradigm itself.
It is worth recalling the guarantee that terrorism found in the total war against the forces that produced the Holocaust and the Nanking massacre. The loss of civilian life in the firebombing of Dresden and the atomic bombing of Japanese cities was felt to be nugatory in the effort to rid the world of German and Japanese racism; it aroused little indignation in wartime. That, after the war, such as Duras and Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse Five, could provoke in its winners white guilt toward its losers was a clear sign of the dawning of the victimary era.
The increasingly apocalyptic tenor of terrorism today reflects the fact that white guilt is no longer the force it was in the days of Gandhi and M. L. King. Conversely, the unqualified condemnation of terrorism has become a criterion of minimal unity among all organized polities–and, as Saddam’s example illustrates, a simple test of what constitutes a “rogue state.” This is the grain of truth in the idea, discussed in a previous Chronicle, that we are “scapegoating” bin Laden. But the unanimous rejection of terrorism need not imply an obsession with punishing its perpetrators. It can become the basis for a genuine, if minimal, global fraternity based on the understanding, at last realized explicitly in the public sphere, that the basic function of the exchange of representations that is human culture is the deferral of violence. The abandonment of victimary thinking is the universal commitment to abide peacefully within not only egalitarian but also asymmetric relationships, in the faith that even the latter are preferable to violence–and that, in a world of market exchange, they will tend in the long run to mitigate the asymmetry.
The scene of representation creates the means for both the peaceful deferral of resentment and its manifestation as violence. Historical circumstance obliges our generation to make a Pascalian wager on one of the two. Unless we support the aims of al Qaeda, we must bet on the ability of modern civilization and of our species to defer its destruction by the violence whose preconditions it inevitably generates. Under these conditions, optimism is, in a quite literal sense, our categorical imperative.