From the beginning, our use of representations has been anthropological. We seek the truth about ourselves in order to defer the violence through which we risk destroying ourselves. Natural science has advanced by expelling ethical considerations from its intellectual operations. But in anthropology, the ethical is intrinsic to these operations; the hypotheses we create about ourselves are the instruments of our quest for the good.
I have called generative anthropology a new way of thinking. But a way of thinking is nothing more than a hypothesis for solving our crucial problem of living together in peace–in a word, an ethic.
The ethic implicit in an intellectual activity is not always clear from the start. After twenty years or so of originary thinking I am now beginning to understand the ethic of generative anthropology. That this discovery coincides with the access of GA to a wider audience through the WWW is surely not fortuitous.
All ethics promote love over resentment, but we judge them by the sacrifices they entail in order to expel this resentment. National Socialism sought to promote love among Germans and other so-called Aryans, as Fascism had done for Italians. Not long ago these ethics seduced many, but we remember them rather for the horrors they perpetrated on those they excluded. The Communist rhetoric of inclusion was yet more seductive: “the International Soviet will be the human race.” But this was taken to mean that those even implicitly inimical to the Soviet are no longer part of the human race: whence Stalin’s and Mao’s massacres and purges, and the killing fields of Cambodia.
These ethics that preach brotherhood but encourage resentment exemplify the phenomenon of sacrificiality that is far from having been exorcised with them. The victimary discourse of today is less virulent than Hitler’s anti-Semitic tirades, but it unreflectively inverts their sacrificial structure. This phenomenon of sacrificial inversion has become so common that it is invisible even to deconstructionists whose very careers are built on the concept of deferral. To reveal the sacrificial in today’s victimary discourse requires originary thinking.
The word sacrifice contains within itself the paradox of culture. Etymologically to make sacred (sacer + facio), it means both to renounce and to kill. Culture is about renouncing and making sacred, but it is also about killing in the service of these ends. In the originary scene, the central object of mimetic desire is renounced-as-sacred through being named-as-sacred by the sign that is the name-of-God; only once this mediating structure has been established can it be torn apart and eaten in the sparagmos.
Sacrificial thinking is designed to justify the necessary evil of this discharge of resentment toward the central being that can never fully incarnate the divinity and put an end to conflict rather than merely defer it. Sacrificial thinking is a necessity of ritual society, all the more so in its often repressive hierarchical forms. But in market society, political structures come to supplant ritual structures in deferring the violent expression of resentment. Sacrificial thinking becomes counterproductive within the framework of democratic politics, as witness the results of fascist and communist contempt for the parliamentary democracy of the bourgeois market system. In today’s victimary thinking, the object of this contempt has been extended from the market system, from which we can conceive no transcendence, to humanity itself.
The ethical mission of originary thinking is to provide us with a post-sacrificial anthropology.
Victimary rhetoric derives its power from the dynamic of the originary scene. What we resent in the other is his real or fancied proximity to the center. Because we are in principle equal exchangers of signs, we find it unjust that others surpass us in the exchange of things. Where victimary thinking goes wrong is not in denouncing injustice, but in assimilating it to sacrificial victimage. Reducing human relationships to that between sacrificer and victim denies the common humanity of both sides. Where tragedy suggests that life is never as the language of human desire wants it to be, victimary discourse affirms as life’s sole value the struggle against oppression, which mirabile dictu has begun to bear fruit only today. All real social orders are weighed and found wanting against the absolute standard of our originary moral model of reciprocity.
Although the distant ancestor of victimary discourse is the oppositional view of the social order forged in the French Revolution, its specific rhetoric was born in the postwar reaction to the Holocaust. Between Nazis and Jews, there was no reciprocity; one side was innocent, the other guilty of unspeakable crime. The lesson of the Holocaust is to assimilate all collective resentments to this unambiguous model. The resulting faith in resentment generated the powerful social movements that achieved the abolition of colonialism and racial segregation, as well as equal rights for women.
But in the new world these movements have created, victimary discourse is no longer productive. The objectivizing jargon of Foucault can no longer hide the scapegoating rhetoric of sacrifice denounced by Girard. The denunciation of victimage has become a ritual gesture meant to absolve us–and this refers to all of us–of the guilt of our originary inheritance.
Originary thinking allows us to situate our drive toward reciprocal equality in the context of our supreme need to defer mimetic conflict and to trace the historical evolution of the social structures that realize reciprocity while insuring against violence. Humanity has been able to survive and prosper only because, whatever its lapses, its history has been guided more by love than by resentment. The ethical mission of our new mode of self-understanding is to help extend this guidance into the future.