I take Eric Gans’ latest Chronicle (#341, “Victimary Extinction or Religious Survival”) to initiate a displacement of White Guilt from the center of our discussion, insofar as contending diagnoses of the phenomena must ultimately be tested by the respective treatments they propose and by what the debate itself can reveal regarding the fundamentals of our “discipline.” If our disagreements can be shown to reside in different ways of articulating historical specificity and fundamental anthropological reflection, on the one hand, and GA as a mode of self-reflection capable of assisting in the identification and amelioration of rivalries and resentments as well as a mode of disinterested inquiry, on the other hand, it will have been a productive disagreement indeed.
I can begin by endorsing and minimally taking issue with the following representation of my positions: “As the mode of postmodern critique, deconstruction is fully ‘Katzian’; it attributes no power to the Other and all power to the hegemonic national/cultural Self.” Insofar as the Other is he who does not occupy the same scene as I do, the “Katzian” position seems to me axiomatic: none of us gives a second thought as to whether we are presently offending the Mongolians or Aleutians, and if we do worry about offending the Muslims, it is because we now share a common object with them, which is to say to that extent they are now no longer “Others” but rather “other” participants on the same scene. Maybe to that extent deconstruction is itself “Katzian,” but the purpose of deconstruction is to preserve and heighten that ambiguous state between other and Other, where we are perpetually dealing with specters of our own creation (“Others”) which nevertheless possess sufficient agency to disrupt our projections (“others”). The ethical stance in this case would be, as Gans suggests, one that understands that it is not only the power to physically control and exclude the Other, but to construct and define her, regarding which the “Same” must be ever vigilant.
If the “Other” is he who does not share our object and participate in constructing our scene, the term covers a wide range of relationships: from the kind of irrelevant Others I mentioned in the previous paragraph, to enormously powerful Others who could easily destroy us, to, perhaps most importantly, those upon whom I project the fears and desires that would properly, but only with very uncertain results, be directed toward my others (this would probably have been the more accurate critique of “Orientalism” than the one Said actually issued: projections of the “East” enabled classes and nations within Europe to avoid making too explicit accusations of tyranny and backwardness against each other). So, I am not simply referring to those we need not concern ourselves with, merely those who raise no fundamental moral questions for us. It follows that moral boundaries will be blurred and internal modes of deferral disrupted when Others start to become others (and hence to modify and disturb our relations with our “others”). Whereas in our relation to others, we seek to maintain norms of reciprocity and indeed, to constantly repair and when possible strengthen those norms, in relation to Others, we aim for a less lofty symmetry, ensuring at least some minimal predictability in our transactions. White Guilt emerges in response to the crisis induced by the massive boundary confusion of the 20th century and is therefore a sign of the collapse of this distinction between reciprocity and symmetry, and the significant damage to each taken separately: this collapse is the problem to which White Guilt represents an attempted solution, and White Guilt has now become part of the problem preventing the attempt to construct solutions, albeit provisional and difficult ones.
So, if I have been saying “that the bearer of WG is in the first place afraid of his own potential power over the Other” it is in the sense that the fear generated here is fear of the others instigated by a new and problematic relation to the Other. In this sense I can see why Eric would situate my reflections at a less fundamental stage of anthropological inquiry—on the originary scene the distinction I am making between others and Others does not seem to exist. First of all, let me explain my own thesis. I am recommending that we take literally the claim, on the part of the typical white guilty leftist (American or European), that he fears George Bush more than Osama Bin Laden. For those who don’t actually experience that fear, it must be very hard to take it literally—it seems like an obvious dramatization, and it makes sense to assume that what is “really” meant is that one fears that “George Bush” will incite the resentment of “Osama” leading to the violent resentment one “really” fears. Not so, I insist: the fear is that the American public, conceived in the white guilty imagination to be a veritable lynch mob only barely held in check by the various obstacles to action put in place over the decades by the liberal media, academy and judiciary, once roused to settle accounts with “Osama” once and for all, will not stop there. I don’t say that the fear is as specific as that “George McGovern” will be the next target, but rather, that unleashing the American mob will lead to uncontrollable and unpredictable consequences that will engulf us all, one way or another (and wouldn’t that be the most specific that one’s fear on the originary scene itself would be?—one wouldn’t fear, in particular, some designated other). Buffer zones, crucial to the existence of the islands of the enlightened in a “normalized” sea of zombies, will be swept away. For the left, in other words, it is an article of faith that for “middle (red) America,” “coastal (blue) America” is always about to become a monstrous Other.
This brings us back to the originary scene, which is itself in fact characterized by an intensification of the ambiguity between other and Other: the more the other occupies the same scene as I do, the more likely it is that he is an Other who wants to usurp my place and destroy me. In that case, if “Adam is right to analyze European-style ‘pacifism’ and all that it entails as a reaction to the horrors of WWII’s paroxysm of firstness gone wrong–gone wrong precisely because it was hallucinated as itself a reaction by the ‘victims’ of the Jews’ betrayal in WWI (der Dolchstoss), Bolshevism-plutocracy, corruption of the ‘Aryan race,’ etc.,” we need to pay closer attention to Eric’s claim that “In the originary event, the ‘first’ user of the sign was driven by the fear that his gesture of appropriation might arouse a violent reaction in his fellows. Behind the postmodern fear of one’s own power over others is the more anthropologically primitive fear of the potential ability of these others to reverse the hierarchy that sustains this power.” There seem to be two different dimensions of firstness here: firstness as a fear of the violence of the Other and fear of firstness as a potential mode of violence or “Othering” in its own right. And it would make sense to think of firstness as itself fearful insofar as, in the moment before others became others by imitating the gesture (rather than Others by ignoring it), the distinction between firstness and “firstness gone wrong” would be impossible to make in any reliable way.
That is, without its completion by the others, the initial gesture is radically indeterminate: it could incite and intensify just as easily as it could interrupt the gathering crisis. In this case, rather deep memories of the originary scene would be involved in White Guilt. Even more, it seems likely that not only would firstness be necessary for the originary scene, but so would its forgetting: firstness would be a vivid reminder of that moment when the convulsion of violence seemed at least as likely as any other possibility; remembering, which is to say iterating and ritualizing the scene as one in which everyone signed simultaneously would be much more assuring. Firstness would only be remembered in times of crisis, and since it would, by definition be “remembered” by someone “first,” it would be, for the others, at least in part a sign of that crisis as well. Firstness, then, in these later rememberings, would always involve a willingness to risk scapegoating and its success would be world-historical precisely because that possibility was transcended.
So European colonialism would be a form of firstness as well as firstness gone wrong: what other form of relationship between Europe and Africa and Asia could have avoided the need, on the part of Europeans, to take on some kind of civilizing role, even given their own barbarities and general ill-suitedness to take on such a role? The Nazi Holocaust, insofar as it can be seen primarily as continuous with this history (as it is, perhaps most famously, by Aime Cesaire, in his Discourse on Colonialism, arguing that the only reason Europeans were so horrified by the genocide of the Jews was that for the first time the victims of colonialism were white), would then lead to a conflation of firstness with firstness gone wrong, repeating, finally, the originary forgetting of firstness (by representing the Jews as simply another victim, chosen for easily explicable historical, sociological, economic, etc., reasons). All claims to civilizing the Other aim at nothing more than possessing the Other—but this very desire to possess the Other (his resources, territories, labor, etc.) is what drove the West into a thirty years long civil war that, had Hitler’s scientists been a bit cleverer or luckier (and that won’t be the case next time, since the means are already available), we would not have survived.
In this case, White Guilt is a spectacular example of firstness gone wrong: what else could account for the belief that one’s own cultural suicide will save the world? But this brings us back to the bearer of White Guilt’s fear of the violence of the Other. Eric’s claim is that “Behind the postmodern fear of one’s own power over others is the more anthropologically primitive fear of the potential ability of these others to reverse the hierarchy that sustains this power.” But what “hierarchy” is there to be reversed on the originary scene? If the originary scene is set in motion precisely through the collapse of pre-human, animal hierarchies, this formulation would seem to concede the “lateness” of White Guilt. The same seems to me to be the case with the following: “Nor is this fear permanently absent in the postmodern configuration. No doubt if the Europeans chose to fight with guns they would not have to fear those with knives. But once one ceases to affirm firstness by displaying a credible threat of violence, the resentful Other will fill the vacuum with violence of his own. The history of ‘liberation movements’ reflects this, as well as the current jihadi struggle. Terrorism only works–is only even tried–when the dominant power begins to take the resentment of its subalterns into account.”
The question of the decision no longer to affirm firstness cannot, it seems to me, be located, strictly speaking, on the originary scene: this would have to refer to what I have hypothesized as the periodic need to remember and recover firstness, which can always be allowed to “lapse.” The same goes for the credible threat of violence, which we might consider a part of the originary scene, but a dispensable part: we can imagine the need to use force against those rejecting the sign; but we can also imagine a unanimous renunciation. It seems most economical to take this new attitude toward the subaltern as part of the broader crisis of firstness. Once a deformation of firstness has become accepted as a mode of deferral (White Guilt, in its various institutions—an anti-American UN, the EU, post-Auschwitz forms of international law which have increasingly encroached upon national sovereignty, almost to the point of rendering it illegitimate—has, from the standpoint of the Europeans and American Europhiles, kept the peace in Europe and, it is plausible to imagine, prevented nuclear war between the superpowers and contains the only hope for First World/Third World reconciliation. At the very least, how could one disprove any of this?), only another, matching mode of deferral can replace it. This is my understanding of the need to de-center White Guilt, which means to return to the task of historicizing “Auschwitz” by retrieving firstness.
I have nothing to add to Eric’s remarks on the need for “a circumstantial narrative that allows us to trace our heritage back to a model of originary exchange,” so I will focus on some of the political preconditions of a recovery of the required minimal faith. If “every religion claims for its community the ancestry of the first human to convert his appropriative gesture into a sign,” the same must be true, more contentiously, with every national community. If we are to resist the imperial and utopian ambitions of the “transnational progressives” (the political party of White Guilt) as well as the renewed tribalism of which the jihad is merely the most prominent and dangerous component, we can only do so in terms of the prerogatives of the nation state. But so far that would merely be a call to return to the traditional nationalism of (or at least conceived and idealized in) the nineteenth century.
Through the nineteenth century a genuinely “pluralistic” world could be tolerated: an increasingly democratic and free West could co-exist with the ancient tyrannies of the East and the Muslim world. Much of the resentment directed toward the Bush Doctrine by conservatives rests upon a belief that such a pluralism is inevitable since we have no reason to assume that liberty is desired (or more desired than other things) by Others. But this configuration collapsed precisely because the desire to possess the Others infiltrated the modes of reciprocity carefully constructed over centuries of Western history—in particular, rules of warfare and respect for national sovereignty. The widespread availability of nuclear weapons makes it even more absurd to think of returning to the previous pluralism. We have no choice but to turn the Others into others, which doesn’t mean transforming the world into a single community; rather, it means shared rules of engagement based upon a general conformity of domestic institutions. This is already happening rather rapidly: our relations with China and India, to take the two most prominent examples, have already moved well beyond the colonial, asymmetric, model. In fact, we could see the intensification of both White Guilt and its complement, the totalitarian jihad, in recent years, as resulting from the fear that their entire mode of deferral and civilization (respectively) is becoming extinct.
But the outcome is uncertain—backsliding in Europe and the U.S. is very real, and without the U.S. maintaining its centrality, its firstness, at least a while longer, there will be no shared center capable of sustaining the world market system. As necessary as religious faith may be, we must also be able to look for the highest political forms of the West, in particular constitutional government, as well as those “amendments” added in the 20th century in response to both abuses of firstness and totalitarian attempts to exterminate it, such as civil disobedience, the “dissident,” the “witness,” and to support them whenever we find them. Perhaps we will, in an interesting twist, find them more and more often in the Christian “martyr” in Islamic and Communist societies (i.e., China); and, of all places, in the heart of Western Europe itself, where before long not only “Islamophobia” but global warming “denial” might be deemed thought crimes. We must, in short, support, learn to recognize, and hypothesize new modes of freedom, which is to say gestures which are indispensable for and yet dependent upon their completion by other actions beyond our control; or new modes of firstness, which we will inevitably not be completely ready for until we find ourselves converted to the scene they present to us for our continuation. In the name of such political forms and alliances we can recover a sense of limited but necessary use of force and hence “restore our deterrent”; and in the process go a long way toward restoring reality as a process of trial and error.
This is perhaps the most serious effect of White Guilt—it aims at suspending reality because reality is nothing other than the contagion set in motion by the breaking of the originary symmetry Eric has described as the peculiar deformation of the originary scene constitutive of White Guilt. Our capacities for dealing with reality from any other standpoint than that of the special prosecutor looking for Watergate-style conspiracies in every nook and cranny of existence have significantly atrophied. A fully human reality is based upon mutual promises and covenants and upon keeping faith with them. This means we are obliged to follow ‘Abraham, the man from Ur, whose whole story, as the Bible tells it, shows such a passionate drive toward making covenants that it is as though he departed from his country for no other reason than to try out the power of mutual promise in the wilderness of the world, until eventually God himself agreed to make a covenant with him’ (Hannah Arendt). The retrieval and extension of firstness is the exercise of this power; it is all that can be holy for all of us today, and all that we need.