This Chronicle is the first of two parts of the talk I recently delivered at the 5th annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference in High Point, NC. This conference, flawlessly hosted by my old friend and former student Matt Schneider, who is chair of the English Department at High Point University, was a very positive event which I expect will inspire a further Chronicle or two.
Everyone knows the paradox of the barber who shaves every man who doesn’t shave himself. As I pointed out a few Chronicles ago (#390), the barber paradox, which set theorists since Bertrand Russell have associated with the paradox inherent in the “set of all sets (that don’t include themselves),” is homologous to the originary paradox of signification that is of particular interest to originary anthropologists. Prior to my encounter with Girard’s originary “mechanism” in La violence et le sacré, I had had the intuition, inspired by the Batesonian idea of “pragmatic paradox,” that paradox is not an anomalous state of logical discourse but the originary state from which it emerges. Language confers significance in the mode of the always-already. It is not enough to say that we create the sacred by designating it as sacred; we designate it in the mode of already being sacred. The originary hypothesis attempts to create a plausible scenario for this process, but the act of signification itself remains paradoxical in the sense that it cannot be reduced to a simple causal sequence. Attempts to do so lead to logical paradoxes, of which the barber paradox may serve as a model.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 390, the idea of a barber who shaves everyone who doesn’t shave himself is perfectly unexceptional if we understand it as a description of an activity taking place in real time. The barber’s algorithm is simple; he goes through the male population and if the person is unshaven, the barber shaves him. When he comes to himself, if he is unshaven, he shaves himself. At this point, he is shaved, so the barber doesn’t have to shave himself a second time. Thus he shaves everyone, including himself, who hasn’t already shaved himself. The paradox is occasioned by the “logical” compression of the chronology into a permanent state, so that the two states of the barber’s own beard are forcibly equated with each other. Yet this is precisely the circumstance described in the originary hypothesis. The barber’s double status, first unshaven, then shaved, is not captured in the formulation “x does (not) shave himself” since the latter reifies an action into a status; the barber at first doesn’t shave/hasn’t shaved himself, then he has done so.
When it comes to being sacred, the sign creates the category, but in the mode of representing a prior state, so that the central object never simply becomes sacred. We can easily enough break down the barber’s action to show why “shaving oneself” is an ambiguous status, but there is no way to do this for a sacred object; to designate it is precisely not to be able to appropriate it, as I have expressed by the notion of the aborted gesture of appropriation. The paradox here is pragmatic: in the absence of an effective hierarchy, to express appetitive interest makes the object more inaccessible. The sign, which expresses this inaccessibility, will subsequently facilitate the sparagmos in which the object is divided, but for the moment it does more than “designate the object as inaccessible”; it designates the object as being designated as inaccessible, that is, it draws attention to itself as well as to its object, which is another way of saying that it represents the object. In doing this it creates an ontology in which the object is situated for the moment in another universe, separated from that of the human periphery by a force of interdiction, that is, a moral force, one that, precisely, can only exist as represented. But because of this separation, it is no longer possible to speak of the object’s status before and after its representation by the sacralizing sign; the object is no longer present in the temporal universe of the users of the sign. It is not useful to describe the object as (1) not yet sacred and then (2) rendered sacred by the sign, since these two “states” of the object cannot be observed as following each other within the same universe. The “mystery” of the sacred is precisely this.
How then is this related specifically to the Jews? This requires that we accept the necessity of “defining” the Jewish people by what might be called a transhistorical essence—something that antisemites have no difficulty with, and philosemites only somewhat more, but that makes nervous those who consider such essences myths rather than realities. Here I needn’t refer to Benedict Anderson’s famous concept of imagined communities, since the “essence” of Judaism is anterior to the collective “imagination” that makes the Jews a people. “History” (Historie) may be a construction, but it is built from a series of events, and however fuzzy our notion of event, the Jews are defined as a people by the event of the Mosaic revelation described in Exodus 3, whose occurrence can be qualified by a term I used in Science and Faith to apply, precisely, to the substance of this event: as autoprobatory. We have no need to “believe” in the voice, the burning bush, or even the existence of Moses himself; we certainly have no need to “believe in God”; but the intuition expressed in God’s giving his name as a declarative sentence (ehyeh asher ehyeh: I am who/that I am) requires no other “proof” than itself. This discovery is what defines the Jewish people. Calling it “monotheism” is convenient, but tends to mask its real originality, a point made by Martin Buber: “The universal sun-god of Amenhotep IV is incomparably closer to the national sun-god of the ancient Egyptian Pantheon than to the God of early Israel, which some have endeavored to derive from him” (Moses, 8). Hebrew monotheism is not simply the reduction of a pantheon of divinities to a single master-god, as in Akhenaton’s henotheism or, for that matter, the kingship of Zeus in the Greek pantheon, where it would be easy enough to treat the secondary gods as mere attributes, as Xenophanes and other Greek thinkers do in effect. It is by eliminating the vocative name of God and “discovering” that his “name” is in fact a declarative sentence that the Hebrew religion was created.
In this discovery that God cannot be called upon is contained the essential notion of a truly universal god, not the idea of a god “more powerful” than other gods, but an understanding that to the extent we can all speak of (a) god but cannot call him by name, all gods are effectively the same. A god one can call is by necessity the local god of a specific community, and there is no one language, no one communal dialect that all humans speak, that returns them to their originary unity, but it is precisely in this absence of a name that the members of diverse communities can understand the originary sense of the name-of-God better than the originary participants themselves. To know that God’s name is a sentence that only he can pronounce is to know that the sign designates a truly transcendent being, one whom the vocative nature of the name had created the illusion of bringing into the world of the human participants, although for the time of the representation and before the division of the object in the sparagmos, the two worlds are absolutely distinct. The historical essence of Judaism is to have made this discovery.
I might say in passing that to call this an invention would change nothing in historical reality, since it has been adopted by all Western religions and less radical equivalents are present in the religious practices of other advanced civilizations as well. I have pointed out elsewhere the curious parallel of this “discovery” with the invention of metaphysics in Greece (at what may well have been about the same time, since the origin of the biblical text is not easy to date). Greek philosophy expelled the ostensive-imperative language of religion from systematic thought, which takes place in propositions, declarative sentences, whose anthropological provenance is excluded from consideration. Along the same line, the “forgetting” of the originary ostensive that is consummated by the substitution of a declarative sentence for all “names-of-God” expresses the linguistic intuition that is the foundation of modern linguistics and generative grammar (this is the chief justification for the otherwise somewhat misleading term generative in generative anthropology): that the “destiny” of language is the declarative sentence, and the earlier forms are in effect “destined” to be absorbed into it. For once one has signs for things deemed sacred/significant, worthy in themselves of “non-instinctual” or “disinterested” attention (it being understood that this “disinterest” is not permanent detachment but deferral of appetite), the manipulability of the signs in themselves is a very nearly self-evident possibility that so to speak awaits the syntax to make use of it—even if this wait may have taken hundreds of thousands of years. Putting signs together is a “discovery” that requires “only” what I called the “lowering of the threshold of signification” (and no doubt modification of the vocal tract). In this regard it is noteworthy that the sentence that God gives as his name is essentially empty of content, one that illustrates sentential manipulation itself: I am that I am is more a template for predication than a sentence.
But just as this new name-of-god realizes the potential of the originary scene, it declares it unrepeatable. The ostensive name-of-god with which we began is no longer possible; there will be no more revelations of namable Gods, or to put it another way, we are already fully human and can’t repeat the circumstances of our origin. A name is a concrete thing, a pointing; a sentence is an abstraction. Monotheism isn’t just the reduction of gods to God; it is a step in the direction of “secularism,” of the substitution of ideas (or Ideas) for sacred beings, a step toward the atheism whose flourishing would await the Christian “supersession” of Judaism and its fruits in the world of commerce and industry.
Why does this remembered event create for the Jews what I have called a transhistorical essence? Because given the separation of the Hebrews from their original homeland, their community has been defined entirely qua community by its common culture, and therefore by the event of its founding. One can be French without concerning oneself with any given event or even with nos ancêtres les Gaulois, but one can be a Jew only by reference to the founding of the Hebrew religious community, even if one is an atheist otherwise wholly ignorant of Jewish religious beliefs. No matter how peripherally one relates to the history of the Jews, to call oneself a Jew is to evoke this heritage, at the center of which is on the one hand, the monotheist credo announced in this passage, and on the other, the Exodus, the legendary founding event that this passage directly prepares—this of course irrespective of the historical reality of the Exodus itself, let alone its relationship to the “discovery” of monotheism.
It is an interesting question to what extent the historical homelessness of the Jews that has made it impossible for them to define their community by a place (and we see how anxious the rest of the world is to ensure that the Jews not be able to identify with Israel as their homeland) is a consequence of the specificity of this founding event. Certainly the Christian understanding of the “Wandering Jew” affirms this consequentiality, redefining it of course in its own terms. But rather than speculate abstractly on this question, it can be made sharper and at the same time removed from the contingencies of empirical history if we understand the Hebrew discovery as fundamentally paradoxical, as exemplifying what we might call the Jewish Barber paradox.
The Hebrew discovery that God has no callable name, that in consequence on the most fundamental ontological level he has the same relationship to everyone in every community, may be understood metaphorically as a “shaving” of everyone’s “beard” of local identification with and name for the divinity. In contrast with beards, which are individual configurations of hair that can be worn as one likes, being clean-shaven is the same for all; however else one differentiates oneself, one cannot do so using an non-existent beard. The Jewish essence may then be defined as removing the specificity of all relationships to God, to a universal unmarking of the specific modes of dialogue that associated the gods with specific communities. But this “shaving” operation is at the same time an indelible marking of the Jew himself, since he is the one exception to the universal sameness of our relationship to the divinity, the unique unmarker, the Barber, and consequently the embodiment of the Jewish Barber paradox.
Does the Jew unmark himself? If we attempt to retemporalize his action as with the original barber, his original unmarking gesture would apply to himself in his “bearded,” still-pre-Horeb state, where he still gives a name to the divinity. But having done this, he has then given himself a new, absolute distinction as the source of the unmarking, the recipient of the revelation of its necessity.
Indeed, the Jewish barber reveals an aspect of the barber paradox that the original kept hidden. What is “different” about the Barber shaving himself than the others? The answer is that the others shave only themselves, but the Barber is a “professional” who shaves others. But when he shaves himself, is he using his professional technique or is he forced to shave himself en amateur? It depends on whether we say he shaves himself or he is shaved by the barber. But if we say he shaves himself, he still must be doing it more professionally, since he alone is a barber. But if we say he is shaved by the barber, he must be shaved less professionally than the others, for on himself he can’t make full use of his professional technique. Thus the paradox of the barber can be made independent of the classic description; it is inherent in the undecidable nature or “essence” of his practice. Not in its reality, since however he shaves himself, it’s done; but in our ability to describe his shave using only the categories of barber-shaven and self-shaven.
Now the Jewish barber in our example is the only one doing any shaving; no one else is shaving himself. But as we see, that is not essential to the paradox, which is really about the undecidable quality of the barber’s self-shave. And in this respect, the Jew’s experience is undecidable with a vengeance—a vengeance the rest of the world has all too often decided to exercise. For if on the one hand the Jewish barber has shaved himself of his God-name in the same manner as everyone else, he is on the other absolutely different from the others because, precisely, he has shaved himself. This is reflected by the fact that the biblical insistence that he abolish God’s old vocative name is accompanied by his receiving God’s non-vocative name as a direct vocal communication—a name that cannot be repeated and consequently cannot be copied by others not privy to this specific historical revelation, irrespective of its real historical circumstances. Whereas in the village the barber’s self-shave (precisely because the others had at least the virtual capacity of shaving themselves) is a mere object of curiosity, in religious matters the one who deprives everyone else of “his” god to the benefit of the One God has acquired a new form of absolute difference. The Jew transforms the “theological” benefit each believer felt to be conferred by belief in “his” god into the religio-historical superiority of being the first to adopt the new understanding and to create/discover the One God appropriate to it. Claiming to be the chosen people of the One God is merely a restatement of this historical firstness; but in contrast to all similar claims by the peoples of named gods, the Jewish claim, that of the Jewish barber, is ineluctable, both for the Jews and for the “nations” that envy them and imitate their model. In Girardian terms, the Jews are the world’s religious mediators, and the external nature of this mediation only makes its universality more galling to the mediated.
The One God is everyone’s God and no one’s local God, but at the same time he reveals this “locally” to the Hebrews. This is the paradox of Jewish firstness and the ultimate source of antisemitism, which I will generally refer to here with the less pointed term “the Jewish Question.” The very abstractness of this Question explains why antisemitism is so persistent across millennia and social systems. No doubt there are always local reasons why Jews are hated; but the configuration of this hatred perpetuates itself so successfully through these local situations because it has its point of departure in an absolute scandal that generates absolute resentment: that the barber shaves everyone is equivalent to his flaunting before the clean-shaven the thickest beard of all.