The marketplace of ideas is increasingly dominated by victimary experience. Culture has always been sacrificial, but it has now become self-consciously so; its purpose seems no longer, as in the days of the martyrs, to reveal the sacred through suffering, but to affirm the sacrality of suffering in itself. Participation in sacred significance is our personal reenactment of the emergence of the human; we grant salvation to those we consider to have suffered for our benefit. These mimetic structures, so familiar to practitioners of originary thinking, rule culture in the information age just as they did in the Ice Age; what changes are the mediations.
Significance emerges from suffering; we celebrate victims. Just as primitive societies attribute every illness or death to a human cause, we are always anxious lest our lack of compassion turn victims of nature into our own. Insensitivity, which our liberals so enjoy attributing to conservatives, plays for us the role that in primitive cultures is attributed to an enemy’s magic spells or evil eye.
But victimary culture does not revel in pure abjection. This culture is proof of “our” victims’ ability to resist the sufferings we inflict upon them. By demonstrating that they are capable of lending significance to their lives, they incite us to affirm this significance as our own. The movement from upbeat stories of minority struggles to quasi-documentaries of minority pathologies, from Raisin in the Sun to Mi Vida Loca, like all advances of realism, reassures us–but never enough–that the story of our victims can still be told as a sacrificial tale, displaying the emergence of meaning from the chaos of mimetic conflict.
Sacrifice has always been with us, but victimary thinking is a romantic invention. The earliest expression I know of it is in Chateaubriand‘s early, barely post-Rousseauean Essai sur les révolutions (1797). The author, traveling in the area of Niagara Falls, encounters an Indian family:
The family was composed of two women, with two small children at the breast, and three warriors: two of them must have been between forty and forty-five years of age, although they appeared much older; the third was a young man.The conversation soon became general, that is, by a few broken words on my part and by many gestures: an expressive language, which these nations understand marvelously well and which I had learned among them. The young man alone maintained an obstinate silence; he kept his eyes constantly fixed on me. Despite the black, red, blue stripes, the cut ears, the pearl hanging from his nose that disfigured him, it was easy to distinguish the nobility and the sensitivity that animated his face. How grateful I was to him for not liking me! [Comme je lui savais gré de ne pas m’aimer!] I seemed to read in his heart the history of all the ills with which the Europeans have burdened his fatherland.
Rousseau‘s noble savage is no longer a mere object of admiration or regret, but of guilt; modern liberalism is born.
A later, more ironic and problematic version of this topos is found in Baudelaire‘s prose poem Assommons les pauvres!, written in 1865, two years before his death. The poet, applying the principle that the only person worthy of freedom is he who is able to conquer it, administers a beating to a beggar who asks him for alms. Finally the beggar strikes back in self-defense. When the poet has received sufficient punishment, he declares the beggar his equal and shares his purse with him, counseling him to administer the same lesson to his companions.
Thus the radical-thinking Baudelaire espouses a conservative view of tough love, where the old reactionary Chateaubriand prefigures the guilt-ridden liberal. The power of the socialist utopia was that it reduced all obstacles to its realization to economic terms. If Baudelaire’s text sounds strangely old-fashioned in contrast with that of his predecessor, it is because, although it criticizes this utopia, it shares its optimism in presenting victimary difference in terms of class rather than the ascriptive (i.e., unchangeable) categories of today’s identity politics: gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. Beggars are only of interest today as members of the victimary community of the homeless; beggars with apartments just fall between the cracks.
But we should be happy that modern liberalism has banalized this sensibility by integrating it into the political exchange system. This integration, rather than signifying its triumph, signals its loss of transcendental status. The sacral notion of victimage loses its aura and becomes just another negotiating point. As proof we need look no farther than the current debate on affirmative action. This policy, untouchable a few years ago as a form of divine justice, must now be defended in the relative terms of interests.
Human difference requires a more nuanced model than the zero-sum persecutor-victim relation. Market society generates value; it does not merely redistribute it. Identity politics, as opposed to victimary politics, will increasingly enable us to understand society in terms of exchange rather than domination.