In the previous Chronicle I pointed out some areas for improvement in Originary Thinking. This time, I would like to suggest an imaginary revision to a more recent book. Given that the subject was The Scenic Imagination rather than language origin per se, instead of turning in the final chapters to Terrence Deacon’s quasi-acknowledgement of an originary hypothesis and David Sloan Wilson’s acceptance of the selective value of religion, I might have done better to deal with the two most significant thinkers of the victimary era, Jacques Derrida and René Girard. In his insightful book, Violence and Difference (Illinois, 1992), Andrew McKenna points out the many parallels between them. I could have ended the book with a discussion of GA itself, whose theory of the sign makes a synthesis of these two thinkers: the deferral of violence through representation. It would have been appropriate to conclude the prehistory of the idea with the emergence of the idea itself.
What is radically new about the postwar victimary thought that still dominates our post-millennial age is that it is a condemnation of the human with no clear promise of deliverance. Derrida’s deconstruction of the scene of presence and the constructive but violent anthropology of La violence et le sacré are the most highly articulated presentations of this condemnation; but even Girard’s explicitly Christian later writings run more to apocalypse than redemption. This is the lived final chapter of the scenic imagination in our era, and a generative epilogue with a happy ending is by no means assured.
At first glance, the Holocaust has nothing in common with the originary scene. It is the refusal of a scene; its victims are not sacrificed but exterminated. But all human relations are scenic, even if the scenic implications of the Shoah took over a decade to emerge. At first the Jews and others were taken–and took themselves–to task for letting themselves be massacred without fighting back. Isolated examples of resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, were sought out as proof that some degree of human reciprocity had been maintained. This early malaise reflected an understandable reluctance to accept that something unprecedented had taken place, that the very scene of human interaction had been damaged. But once people had absorbed the images of horror that Resnais’ 1955 Nuit et brouillard revealed to the general public, it was no longer possible to “blame the victims” for their lack of reaction, and the scene of representation on which all that is specifically human takes place was forced to bear the stigma of having permitted this degree of inhumanity.
The postwar reaction to the Holocaust is the leading source of the paradigm shift that led to and was in turn reinforced by decolonization, the civil rights movement, and other causes defined by the moral imperative that hierarchical relationships have no claim on human ontology. Overall this was no doubt a positive development, one whose excesses can be tolerated because their sins against reciprocity are almost always less extreme than those they replaced. But the continuous search to right the wrongs done to “underrepresented” groups through “affirmative action” and other ways of seeking “equal results” reflects a generalized suspicion of human interaction as such; any relationship, present or past, between self and other risks henceforth being denounced as non-reciprocal. All historical reality from the present on back is henceforth an object of permanent suspicion and potential delegitimation by representatives or sympathizers of victimary groups, who read the past as the history of their oppression and the present as the era of its de jure but not de facto cessation.
The victimary thinking begun with Rousseau and expanded by Marx into a historical eschatology declares its independence from historical contingency and comes to present itself as the essence of human self-understanding. We should recall that Rousseau’s attack on society was meant to safeguard the individual’s internal scene of representation, an innocent Self whose essential goodness, realized in the absence of others and their desires, in turn provides a true intuition of their own unspoiled inner being: je sens mon coeur et je connais les hommes [I feel my heart and I know human beings]. In contrast, postwar victimary thought recognizes as innocent only victims, and this only to the extent that their presence on the scene is dependent on the copresence of a victimizing Other. No binary relationship is safe from this criticism. At its most radical, victimary thought discovers the binary asymmetry not merely of human interaction but of the human as such. The defense of victims against their oppressors becomes a critique of the human itself. The extremists who extol the superiority of a human-free earth only draw the final conclusion from this attitude.
The object of deconstruction is the scene of representation, from the center of which purportedly emanates a plenitude of Being. This being may be figured as rays from a central sun, but its characteristic form is that of language in the voice of a self-present speaker. Derrida explicitly identifies this configuration with the metaphysical scene of the Platonic Idea, whose privileged source is the voice of the unwriting Socrates. Heidegger accused Plato and the metaphysics that he founds of turning away from Being to contingent beings, transmogrified into the transcendent sphere of Ideas; this critique is a major inspiration for Derrida’s more radical condemnation. More rigorously deconstructive than the German master, Derrida makes no allusion to a pre-metaphysical scene nor does he turn to the pre-Socratics as sources of a more authentically ursprünglich intuition of Being.
Derrida’s anthropological intuition is too fine to oppose an authentic to a fallen scene of representation. To insert a “forgetting of Being” between Anaximander-Heraclitus-Parmenides and Plato is to obscure both what is gained and what is lost in the origin of metaphysics, which is that of philosophy proper. Put in the terms of the originary hypothesis as the cutting-off of the sacralizing ostensive from the propositional declarative, the birth of metaphysics does not divide an “authentic” from an “inauthentic” grasp of Being; it permits the development of logical reasoning at the expense of the intuitive anthropology of the sacred. We should not fall into the trap of making the “repression” of the ostensive in metaphysical thought into our own version of the Fall. Remembering the originary sacred is not necessarily more productive than forgetting it. If we are now able to overcome this forgetting, it is because we can restore the originary sacred not as a lived reality but as a theoretical model.
Derrida retains Heidegger’s scorn for the fallen scene of metaphysics, not in comparison to an authentic, pristine state, but as the human scene of representation itself, the self-present illusion that denies the différance within the sign that Derrida calls écriture. The complicity of this self-presence with binary victimization is not the theme of De la grammatologie; the extension of logocentrism to phallogocentrism is Luce Irigaray’s, not Derrida’s. There is no politics to speak of in Derrida’s major philosophical texts; the inconsistency with the elementary epistemological basis provided by the scene would be too egregious. If indeed the philosopher belongs on the margin of the public scene, it is because clarity of vision requires detachment from the passions of the center; unlike Rousseau, expelled from the world by un accord unanime, Derrida claims no access to a presocial soul. But the self-presence of the center could not not be seen as victimary. In Derrida’s narcissistic version of the scene of representation, the denial of the space between the self who speaks and the self who hears himself speak, the space of différance and écriture, is inevitably reconfigured as a space of oppression. Its false auto-sufficiency is that of Hegel’s master who ignores his reliance on the slave. Yet for Derrida this solar myth of the self-present speaker is that of all of Western thought, and in the absence of any real or even conceivable counterexample, of all other human thought as well.
A creation of the prelude to 1968, deconstruction is the philosophical distillation of the most radical phase of postwar victimary thinking. For the first time, Western thought provides us with an irreparably flawed model of the human-in-general, one from which we can save ourselves only relatively, by fleeing the center as far as possible to the marges de la philosophie. Once deconstruction’s victimary corollary is made explicit–and Derrida’s political sympathies, more or less indistinguishable from those of Noam Chomsky, encourage us to do so–it is not an over-dramatization to describe deconstruction as the first coherent theory of inherent and irredeemable human evil. Derrida’s political posture, absent from his philosophical texts, is significant nonetheless as a symptom of the incoherence of the moral denunciation of asymmetry in the absence of either a human or a sacred power to which the revelation of the asymmetry itself and the moral law that condemns it can be attributed. As we shall see, Girard’s conception of God serves precisely this purpose, which is that of the originary sacred.
If Girard’s analysis of the human scene is so much clearer to the reader than Derrida’s, it is because despite the latter’s extraordinary subtlety of mind, Girard has a clearer understanding of what humanity is all about. Derrida’s scenic imagination is limited to the solitary central speaker; the peripheral audience need not be depicted because the scene of metaphysics is assumed to be universal, “everyone” being the implicit audience of “truth.” As for the sacred central object, the point of interest around which the scene was formed in the first place, it is simply conflated with the speaker as usurper of the center. Throughout Derrida’s discussion of language, the three-place relationship of speaker, interlocutor, and object of common interest, the target of the complicit pointing that humans do so naturally and apes do not at all, is alluded to only through the metaphysical term “Being” that abstracts away its worldliness. Derrida, whose anthropological intuition outclasses that of the social scientists who seek an evolutionary explanation for language origin, is aware of the sacred nature of this common object: Le signe et la divinité ont le même lieu et le même temps de naissance. L’époque du signe est essentiellement théologique. [The sign and the divinity have the same birth-place and -time. The epoch of the sign is essentially theological.] (Grammatologie 25). But a philosopher does not sully Being with worldly considerations such as hunger that actually pick out objects of common interest in the real world. Even Girard’s scapegoaters are more interested in killing than eating.
Girard replaces Derrida’s solipsistic speaker with a concrete scene, that of a collectivity exercising violence against one of its members. This originary (and not postlapsarian) manifestation of our fallen state is open to salvation through the revelation of its controlling emissary mechanism, Girard’s radical yet not heretical interpretation of Jesus’ message to humanity. The absence of language from Girard’s scene reflects his emphasis on the inherent méconnaissance of the emissary mechanism, the understanding of which is, with one miraculous exception, always distorted by myth. For Girard, the linguistic sign, far from being an originary source of understanding, comes late and brings misunderstanding. Only the Bible provides a gradual revelation of the emissary mechanism through a series of legendary and historical prophets culminating in Jesus, and Girard gives us to understand that this divinely sanctioned overcoming of méconnaissance could not have been accomplished by the normal human capacity for self-reflection. “Pagan” myths, even in tragedy’s maximally insightful demystification, can reveal the arbitrariness of the emissary mechanism only implicitly; literary form requires that the sacrifice retain its sacrality. In contrast, for Girard the Bible is never mythical because from the outset it presents victims as victims. The first example is Cain’s murder of Abel, the unambiguous biblical condemnation of which Girard brilliantly compares with the parallel myth of Romulus and Remus, in whose various versions the death of the latter is never simply described as a murder perpetrated by the former.
Thus, like Derrida, Girard takes the radical step of depicting the human scene as immoral from the outset. Were it not for God’s love, the human would be equally irredeemable in both cases. Nor does Girard’s account of Jesus’ revelation provide an obvious path for its implementation in the real world, which continues to depend on sacrificial modes of social organization rendered only less effective–and consequently more violent–by the need to dissimulate a truth already revealed. If Derrida’s politics, like those of most French intellectuals, follow Marx’s critique of capitalism without the socialist happy ending, Girard’s tend toward an apocalyptic exhortation to transcend resentment through universal love. Neither offer any clear hope for the liberal democracy to which we have no reasonable alternatives.
It is far too early to interpret the enactment of “Obamacare” as a sign that the United States is in the process of aligning itself with a pacifist, post-national, and demographically exhausted Europe that would elevate the postwar victimary paradigm into humankind’s permanent credo. On the contrary, the resistance of the voting public to this and similar measures may signal a reversal of the long-term trend toward European-style étatisation. One sign of the greater vigor of American over European humanism is that Americans prefer to understand the human through physical rather than cultural or linguistic anthropology. Thus the gradualist Darwinism of the educated classes, virtually the only anthropology available to Americans outside of creationism, is not morally inflected like deconstruction. But this provides no more than a passive defense against the Western death-wish that apologizes to the Other for our prosperity and to Nature for our existence.
The originary hypothesis will not solve the world’s political problems, but it supplies us with an antidote to the postwar victimary nihilism that refuses, two generations after the Holocaust, to attribute a positive value to human existence. It might have been a good idea to end The Scenic Imagination on this note.