Some readers interpreted my analysis in Chronicle 316 as implying that I had changed my mind concerning the relative importance of Hiroshima and Auschwitz. It might be better to say that we should defer this decision until such time as we have fully articulated the different lessons each of these emblematic events has taught us.
Can man’s inhumanity to man be worse than annihilation? One can recover from the first, but not the second. Whatever depths of evil may motivate “the will to power,” it is less likely to eliminate the human altogether than the nihilism that makes suicide the guarantee of the purity of its intentions. Does the slaughter in Rwanda inspire as much fear as a suicide terrorist with an atomic weapon? The first is scarcely unprecedented; the second, definitely so. And whereas ethical progress is a secular process, technological progress is continually accelerating. Where would we be if all war and organized violence had evolved out of existence, but the means of destroying the entire planet were at the disposal of the average person?
Yet to abandon the priority of Auschwitz is to put an end to human dignity. If this fails to horrify us more than mere unthinking destruction, what humanity do we have left to save? Thus the Auschwitz-Hiroshima debate is one to avoid. Instead, we should meditate on the significance of the temporal coincidence of the project of genocide with the creation of weaponry that could wipe out our entire species. But the more immediate task is to understand the specific contribution of each to the victimary paradigm that defines the postmodern era.
However uncomfortable one may be with its effacement of the crimes of the Axis, Hiroshima mon amour (see Chronicle316), does not blame the Allies and takes no cheap shots at the Americans who made and carried out the decision to drop the bomb. The anthropological value of this historical amnesia is that it permits us to focus on the asymmetry of victory without taking sides. The bomb’s asymmetry that ended the war also ended “total war,” because even in its primitive state it provided a first vision of our self-extermination. This was a lyric, apolitical moment of victimary thinking–one suitable for the genius of Marguerite Duras, the most important French novelist since Proust and the author of the Hiroshima screenplay. Duras’ fiction, most strikingly in her masterpiece, Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, reveals better than any other the latent power of the passive, feminine position of the “loser” in love’s triangle, and by extension of all losers, as if debunking in advance the victimary era she would anticipate.
It was the crisis of the Vietnam war, reinforced by the student unrest in France, that made the year 1968 the historic moment when the asymmetrical force of Hiroshima met the moral dichotomy of Auschwitz. Suddenly “we,” who were supposedly “bombing Vietnam back into the stone age,” had become the Nazis. I well recall the revelatory force of this new perspective. Its power did not come from a simple sense of guilt. On the contrary, it was driven by the possibility of disculpating ourselves, in particular for avoiding military service in Vietnam: if we were the Nazis, then refusal to fight was noble. This catalyst, which affected some more directly than others, sufficed to provoke the insight that “We” representatives of American power were Nazis everywhere, most definitely including at home, but that “we” radicals were victims of the Establishment on a par with the admired “Vietcong.” Characteristically, a brochure made the rounds in 1968 entitled “The Student as Nigger” (cf. the Québécois Nègres blancs d’Amérique).
The white guilt that was born at this historical moment had as its midwife the divergence of interests, more apparent than real, between university-based radicals and the Establishment upon whom the guilt was heaped. As in all social movements, but particularly in the symbol-driven variety–a category that the 1960s New Left shared with 1830s Romanticism–a temporary dichotomy of interests was used to define a “class” distinction that masked the more fundamental identity of the rebellious group with its opponents. By finding Nazism everywhere, 60s radicals could justify prolonging their adolescence as a revolt rather than as passive acquiescence in the “system.” The projection of guilt onto the Establishment created a dichotomy between innocent and guilty that masked the significance of the attribution of guilt to one’s own country, to one’s own social class, and ultimately to oneself. Nor should we dwell overmuch on the desire for self-preservation that motivated the student radicals; if this had been the source rather than merely a catalyst of white guilt, it would have died out with the end of the Vietnam war, and certainly with the end of the draft. The subsequent expansion of white guilt, so strongly with us today, belies this narrow interpretation.
It is always a useful exercise to imagine conflicts between persons or classes as though they were taking place within a single individual. This is the fundamental modus operandi of psychoanalysis (which, however, only returns from the individual to the community in “non-canonical” works such as Totem and Taboo); its ultimate justification is the unity of the human–of the internal and external scenes of representation–that derives from the originary scene and that is continually reinforced by the dialectical renegotiation of individual representations in the process of communication.
In cases where long-term interests are systematically opposed, as in the “class conflict” beloved of Marx, the imaginary reduction of the combatants to a single individual is utopian, as is suggested by Marx’s tongue-in-cheek socialist paradise (see Chronicle 278) where one fishes in the morning and hunts in the afternoon. Yet the “class consciousness” presumably generated by production relations is anything but automatic; it requires the good offices of the “vanguard of the proletariat” in order to reach and maintain its appropriate strength; the proletarian needs to learn from bourgeois intellectuals that he is the mortal enemy of the bourgeoisie. The intellectual’s role has at its root a proto-white guilt, but as a spur to action rather than a chronic state: Lenin’s and Trotsky’s labors are not part of the history of victimary thinking. The Marxist intellectual has renounced his membership in the bourgeoisie; that he is in fact helping to create an all-powerful new class is presumably beyond his conscious awareness.
In contrast with conflicts arguably based on one’s lifelong structural role in the community, the conflict that interests us here reflects in its inception the mobile “Oedipal” dichotomy of youth vs age, a pseudo-difference that I would claim as the model for all victimary stances, including those involving race, gender, sexual orientation, and other familiar modes of postmodern victimhood. Just as the youth wishes to remain in adolescence yet be treated as an adult, so the minority wants to retain its victimary status yet be judged against the temporal horizon of full equality. The self-perpetuation of “temporary” affirmative action programs reflects this paradoxical temporality.
The 1960s middle-class radical who regarded his elders with contempt had no social praxis other than theirs to which he could refer. To “drop out” of society à la Timothy Leary was to condemn oneself to marginality, as some, but few, of that generation actually did. The typical 60s radical–who had once sung Phil Ochs’ derisive “Love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal!”–became a liberal Democrat; a smaller number, including (to practice full disclosure) myself, disillusioned with the New Left rather than simply outgrowing it, adopted some version of (neo)conservatism. In either case, they were absorbed into what Marcuse in 1964 rather illogically called the “one-dimensionality” of the “system,” reduced to fighting their battles in the predefined political arena, or occasionally (as at WTO meetings) demonstrating noisily outside it.
This evolution of the erstwhile radicals is not a return to an earlier stage of political opposition. The major parties’ political positions themselves, formerly rough approximations to roles in “class conflict,” remain infused by the new opposition opened up in the 1968 era between the guilty and their denouncers. On whichever side one finds oneself, it is impossible to deny that white guilt, for or against, has become the central issue of American (and by extension Western) politics and the deciding factor in the last presidential election. It is characteristic of democratic politics that both sides bewail this centrality, indignant that the issue has not already been settled in their favor, although its position at the center of the political arena respectfully reflects the energy invested in these diametrical indignations. To deplore the dominance of victimary thinking over large segments of the professional/intellectual classes is precisely to wish for a political arena in which the battle over white guilt can be waged openly. Symmetrically, opponents of the current administration could not have wished for a better central issue in the recent election than the president’s open disregard for their unease at what they see as the excesses of American power and the hostility it arouses among our European allies. Win or lose, both sides got their issue on the table.
Victimary thinking in its various stages follows the process of the humanization of the central victim/deity that is the crucial achievement of Judeo-Christian anthropology. At the origin, the central object/victim was both an appetitive object and the original “subject” to which the sign is centrally communicated–a nuance not present in my previous formulations of the hypothesis. To feel guilt toward the central object-as-victim is to identify it as the essential constituent of the center-as-subject. The most lucid expression of this link is no doubt the centurion’s exclamation in Mark 15:39 and Matthew 27:54, “Truly this [man] was the Son of God.” We are to feel guilt for the crucifixion not simply because we have killed one of our fellows, but because the man-victim is the son of God. Trinitarian theology clarifies the Father-Son relation by emphasizing its simultaneity. But if Father and Son are one Being simultaneously, then the Son is a “youthful” version of the Father, who depends ontologically on the Father’s preexistence but who differs from him by the fact that he has not yet “grown” into the Father’s place. The son-victim being not-yet the father-subject, the eternity of sacred Being embodied in the father depends for its establishment on the son’s sacrificial death and passage/return to transcendent status. To claim that we feel guilt for the central sparagmos out of a preexistent sense of solidarity with the other members of our species is a Rousseauian construct; without the mediation of the sacred center, we would not be human nor would we feel human guilt, which is dependent on representation.
Guilt is a universal human phenomenon. But in the world of imitatio Christi, the only marked role is that of Christ himself, of whose death all are guilty. The one group historically singled out for this guilt have been the Jews, that is, a people Other to Christianity who have played the role of the scapegoat on whom this universal guilt is projected. In the postmodern attitude we call “white guilt,” the scapegoat is the Other in ourselves. This can only arise when the dichotomy between unmarkedness and markedness acquires a sociological status, so that the line of separation falls between marked “minorities” and the unmarked “majority.” Although the term white guilt derives from the black-white American racial divide, the goal of the civil rights movement of the previous decade (roughly, from 1955 to 1965) was to provoke not guilt but recognition of injustice. Only after WWII did institutionalized racial inequality, realized in the continued segregation of the entire South including the border states, come to be felt as intolerable by the general population–one more indication that the original inspiration for the sociologization of the marked-unmarked dichotomy was Nazi racial policy–Auschwitz.
The civil rights movement was linked ominously with the events of 1968 by the assassination of Martin Luther King, whose death was also that of the movement’s integrationist goal. Henceforth the marked status of victim would be seen not as a stigma to be lifted but as a claim on the guilty conscience of the unmarked. It remains to trace the history of white guilt from the Vietnam war, which subsumed the assertion of asymmetrical American power abroad under the Auschwitz paradigm, through the postmodern/victimary era down to our post-millennial present.
(to be continued)