(This and the following Chronicle are taken from a lecture delivered at the recent COV&R meeting in Innsbruck.)
Of the various institutional criteria of the human–language, religion, art, politics, and so on–the most general is that of exchange. Animals exchange favors in the immediate present, as in mutual grooming among chimps, but only humans have symbolic systems that permit exchange at a distance, whether of goods, services, or simply of words.
Once we understand the human in this manner, we realize that although the “free market” is a very recent phenomenon, unknown in the West before the Renaissance and in the rest of the world considerably later, everything specifically human may be understood as a mode of exchange. The free market is symmetrical with the originary exchange of signs around the sacred object; in both cases, the exchange is not prescribed by any prior rule, but entered into voluntarily by the participants. And in both cases, the scene of exchange, virtual or real, both generates and defers or deflects resentment.
Resentment, or ressentiment, is the sentiment of exclusion from the center where significance is generated. There can be no signification without resentment; the sign that re-presents the central object is by its very nature both an expression and a deferral of resentment at its non-possession, directed at the center itself rather than at the other humans on the periphery. This is the general form of Girard’s scapegoat mechanism.
If all significance remains in the center, there is nothing to exchange on the periphery. In order for exchange to take place, the central object must be divided up among the peripheral participants, as normally occurs during a ritual feast. The center is sacred, but the central object is sacred only by association; it is in the sacred locus and belongs to the sacred being. Thus when the participants divide it they obtain portions, not of the indivisible sacred/divinity, but of the referential creature that exemplifies the eternal signified.
The origin of material exchange cannot be derived merely from its empirical history. The model provided in Hubert and Mauss’ Essai sur le don is an important breakthrough on the empirical side, but its anthropological significance can be understood only from the standpoint of an originary notion of virtual exchange. It is a necessary consequence of the originary mutual exchange of signs that the “equal” portions of the subsequent sacrificial feast are virtually exchangeable. At the origin, this guarantees the refocusing of resentment from the group to the center and its discharge in the communal meal. The adaptive value of the sign is made possible by the combination of appetitive payoff and reduction in mimetic tension that it permits; the exchange of identical signs is guaranteed by the exchange of “equal” things. Once this equality is realized in ritual distribution, it implies the equality “outside” ritual of all divisible possessions–bearing in mind that we are never really outside ritual, only outside the scenic ritual context.
Today’s global market is the ultimate heir to the originary scene of exchange. It hardly needs to be said that the liberation of this scene from a fixed locus and set of ritual objects has led to a vast expansion of human creativity. But what does need to be said is that the market, as the general form of exchange, must fulfill the same function that peripheral exchange fulfilled at the origin: the establishment of “solidarity” around the sacred center. It is not correct to say that this center “no longer exists,” because the center has never “existed.” One way of expressing the intellectual ambition of generative anthropology is to refer to the center as God and, rather than argue about whether God exists, simply affirm that God is. What is important about the sacred center, in other words, is that it is the foundation of being, not that it has some kind of material manifestation. If at the origin the center was a single locus, its status as the object of representation makes it “always already” portable and dispersable, partout et nulle part. In the era of the global market, we can begin to take this formula literally.
Mimesis is a “surplus,” a supplement to object-oriented activity. Direct attention to the object is deferred as attention is focused on the mimetic model, and only through the mediation of the model does appropriative action take place. The energy devoted to “positive” mimesis, that is, learning from others, must be presumed to be more than recovered by greater flexibility and rapidity of adaptation to the environment; otherwise, mimesis would never have been adaptive. The energy of positive mimesis, we may say, is recuperated by the system. But mimetic mediation in turn generates, even prior to the existence of a symbolic realm, forms of rivalry whose potential violence is limited by the presence of a “pecking-order” hierarchy where the strongest animal dominates the others and has in consequence greater access to sexual and other objects conducive to reproductive fitness. In this simplified model of higher animal (e.g., ape) societies, the energy of negative mimesis is not recuperated productively but allowed to dissipate in one-on-one rivalries. The superiority of the alpha animal is less analogous to sacred kingship than to the rule of the “alpha” member of a street gang (although even here the leadership is bound to acquire some of the trappings of the sacred).
The institution of the sacred constitutes a great leap forward by recycling within the social order not merely the positive mimetic energy of the learning process but the negative energy of mimetic rivalry that can no longer be dissipated in one-on-one battles. The central human institution of the scene on which the energies of the community are focused arises when it becomes necessary to defer the violence that this proto-resentment threatened to engender when it grew too powerful to be contained within the individual challenges characteristic of animal hierarchies. Focusing the negative as well as the positive energies of mimesis on a central, universal, sacred mediator is the basis for the institutions of representation, an activity limited to humans, which founds a social order that both exists and is represented by its members; the energy of negative mimesis is expended in sacrifice that reinforces the sacrality of this central divinity.
Hence a minimal model of the originary exchange system requires that to the reciprocity of peripheral exchange there be added a supplementary factor or supplément that reflects the burden or “tax” on the exchange process imposed by the ritual center, in the form of sacrifice or its secular derivatives. From the physio-mechanistic perspective that sometimes creeps into La violence et le sacré, the sacrificial act discharges the excess energy invested in the appetitive object as the result of the mimetic intensification of desire; we may compare Bataille’s justification of his notion of dépense as the discharge of the excess or reserve energy required by evolution to ensure survival.
That the surplus relies on an excess of energy beyond that required for survival is a physiological, indeed, a physical truism. But this energy is not brought raw into the process; it is mediated by human, or, at the origin, proto-human modes of interaction that cannot simply be assimilated to physiological reinforcement. A more specifically anthropological analysis would measure the violence of mimetic rivalry by the symbolic energy employed to defer it. The mediation of the center is above all an operation of interdiction; the sacred being that guarantees the exchange process is what is forbidden, unexchangeable at least for a time, and the energetic investment of mimetic desire transferred to the sacred center is not “discharged” but on the contrary consecrated to the object of communal devotion.
The sacred, in the most general sense of the term, is the process whereby mimetic desire is transcended in representation. The sacred may inhere in various objects or practices, but we will not understand it by conceiving it as a quality; like the beautiful, the sacred is only realized in interactive experience, the difference being that the esthetic finds its guarantee on the individual scene of representation, whereas the sacred is linked at least virtually to the communal scene.
The gift in the Hubert-Mauss sense creates a temporally local inequality that is only comprehensible against the backdrop of originary, virtual equality. In making my “sacrifice” to you instead of to the central divinity, I presume that your implicit participation in the originary reciprocity of the exchange of signs and the consequent equal distribution will lead you to reciprocate here as well, but by introducing a time-delay beyond the bounds of ritual temporality–here we can begin to speak of getting “outside” the ritual context, emerging into an explicitly non-ritual or trans-ritual temporality–I pose this reciprocity not as a quasi-automatic part of a necessary process, but as a challenge: turn this non-ritual time into ritual time by responding in kind. Such gift-giving is linked to the existence of an accumulated as opposed to a momentary surplus; one does not burn one’s only blanket in a potlatch. It also reveals that the scenic configuration does not guarantee egalitarian symmetry; the functions of the center, shared by the community, can be monopolized by a few members or a single member of this community. The utopia of the periphery cannot ignore the center.
Gift exchange based on surplus leads to hierarchy; the so-called “big-man” emerges whose gifts cannot be reciprocated and who gradually takes over the central sacred distribution function. The sacred was always a “surplus,” but it existed only for the community and in communal or ritual time, whereas with the development of agriculture (or in other cases of abundant resources as in the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest), individuals can maintain surpluses of their own which fall subject to the mimetic rivalry that originary representation had prevented; cashing in these surpluses in a potlatch is a movement toward local equality (“see, I have destroyed what constituted the difference between us”) that contains the seeds of long-term inequality.
I have just said that the ritual-based gift exchange system leads to hierarchy. Another way to put this is that it leads to undischarged resentment. If I as big-man can give a bigger feast than you, you are going to resent me. Perhaps this will impel you to give a still bigger feast, in which case I will resent you. Fluid hierarchical systems are unstable because they cannot recycle the resentment they generate; they tend to evolve into stricter hierarchies whose leaders acquire the power necessary to maintain them. This renewal of rivalry under conditions of plenty leads to the centralization of the communal surplus under the control of a single political-ritual power: the structure of early state societies. This is the Hobbesian solution to mimetic conflict; equilibrium is found when the object of rivalry is removed from contention. In such systems the basic form of exchange is redistribution; the surplus is extracted from the economy and then sacrificed/redistributed at the ritual/political center; these early state societies are ritual redistribution systems writ large. The center is protected by the force paid for by the surplus; such polities, as the recent history of Iraq, North Korea, or Cuba demonstrates, are highly durable, since any deviance from the centralized system is easily detected and stamped out. Resentment, and the ambition it fuels, is strictly controlled; one can aspire only so high, no farther.
What we call Western culture is rooted in two smaller societies that broke off from the empires that evolved from these archaic states: Israel and Greece. Whatever the truth of the Exodus story, the Israelites define themselves in the first place as exiles from Egypt, protected by the One God who stands on a higher ontological plane than the gods who are agents of the Pharaoh’s political control. The association of Jews with the market is a staple of antisemitism, but like most antisemitic accusations, it can be taken as a compliment. Because the Hebrews were the first to articulate–and found their ethic on–the ontological distinction between central Being and its worldly manifestations, they can be seen as theoreticians of the free market avant la lettre: the essence of human society is peripheral exchange around a center that does not itself enter into exchange relations with the periphery; ritual hierarchy, and the social hierarchy that derives from it, are secondary to our fundamental symmetry before God.
The Greeks, meanwhile, created a commercial society that evolved in Athens into the first functioning democracy, although it could not become a true market society in the absence of a free labor market. Slaves are not simple economic goods; they are captured, not produced. For those who capture them, and for the whole society, military affairs are emphasized and labor itself debased.
Resentment was a real problem in Athenian democracy, one addressed directly by Pericles/Thucydides in the Funeral Oration. Democracy is both symmetrical and hierarchical; social position is hierarchical, but the roles in the hierarchy are not justified by the ritual system. There are no lords to control the citizens, who choose their leaders among themselves, and consequently generate resentment in those not chosen. The great flourishing of Athenian culture, whose exemplary form is tragedy, reflects the necessity of controlling this resentment. Like economic innovation, like human language itself, cultural innovation does not occur spontaneously; it is driven by the necessity of deferring the negative effects of mimetic desire.
In the post-democratic era in Athens that gave birth to Western philosophy, potentially shareable Ideas take the place of the unshareable objects of the tragic agon. Like Hebrew monotheism, Platonic metaphysics insists on the ontological inaccessibility of the central source of meaning (the Ideas); metaphysics blocks the generation of resentment since no one can make a claim of relative or absolute centrality. The abstraction from Greek democracy that we call “philosophy” has been the model for the optimistically agonistic exchange of ideas or propositions ever since, whereas the Hebrew insistence on the univocal subordination of the periphery to the ineffable divine center sets the paradigm for the peaceful exchange of things.
If Athenian democracy holds sign-exchange more important than thing-exchange, modern bourgeois democracy reverses this relationship; the bourgeois operates in civil society as producer and consumer of economic goods and engages in political exchange only as an outgrowth of that function. Politics exists in bourgeois society in order to control the resentments generated in the economic sphere–that is the founding ideology of bourgeois democracy.
Economists who view the bourgeois market as a system of exchange among rational actors cannot account for the resentment it generates. If each person participates only in voluntary transactions, exchanging A for B only when he finds it to his advantage, how can he come to resent the system as a whole? What, in other words, in the exchange process exceeds the system and is not accounted for in the rationalist description of the process? The most ambitious attempt at characterizing this excess is that of Marx, for whom the apparent symmetry of exchange hides the underlying mechanism of the capitalist system: the extraction of surplus value from the characteristic exchange between proletarian and “capitalist” owner of the means of production, that of the former’s labor for the latter’s money. The capitalist enriches himself by paying the worker just enough to reproduce his “labor power,” that is, enough to keep himself alive and provide children for the next generation’s factories, while receiving from the worker a quantity of labor that adds sufficient value to his products to allow him a profit.
In a famous passage of the Communist Manifesto Marx somewhat melodramatically describes the bourgeoisie as having replaced all person-based economic relations by the closed, atomic acts of market exchange.
(to be continued)