The question that arises most crucially from our series of annual conferences is that of the status of GA as a “new way of thinking.” After several decades, given the modest degree to which GA has penetrated the public scene, it is time to give serious consideration to its contribution in the future, mindful of the fact that not only GA but the world of the mind and in particular, that of the humanities has changed greatly in the past few decades.
Today the notion of “humanistic thought” has lost currency to the point where no mode of thought other than “science” can even be named. I exclude “philosophy,” whose status as an academic discipline rather than a way of thinking is reflected in the revelatory fact that today only professors of philosophy call themselves “philosophers.” If years ago I found it pretentious that they would give themselves so prestigious a title, by now I recognize this as a sign of the decline of the old figure of the philosopher as a thinker outside the power structure speaking, as they say today, “truth to power.” Now that even untenured professors do this three times a day before lunch, there’s no place for “independent” philosophical thought. Thus the most notable humanistic thought of the past few decades has not been created in the increasingly technical domain of philosophy, but in that of “theory,” an American distillation of European phenomenological thought transmitted through literature departments following the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference on “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” (in which Girard played a major role) and Paul de Man’s subsequent adoption of Derrida and domestication of his non-concept of “deconstruction.”
Today this mode of thought, too, is in decline, however its ideas may hang on through application to postcolonial and other victimary modes. The growth of various forms of “cultural studies” has balkanized the formerly unitary notion of Western culture, whereas the notion of “global studies” is characteristically focused on preparing careers in world business rather than in conceiving theoretical models of the human, an activity whose relevance to what today passes for humanistic study is no longer obvious. Indeed, we have all but abandoned the idea of conceiving literary works of any kind as permitting us to construct anthropological models guaranteed by “the best which has been thought and said.” Scholarship on literary and other cultural topics tends to insist on victimary or at best sociological factors rather than on the application of the “moral lessons” of the works in question to humanity as a whole.
Let us take a step back and consider what “humanistic thought” might be independently of the departmental structure of knowledge as practiced in the university. The simplest source of such thought is the analysis of texts, or hermeneutics. One begins with a cultural artifact, religious or secular, and seeks in it lessons for the understanding of the human. This involves extending the literal text in various ways. Instead of describing the hermeneutic process phenomenologically, that is, in a content-free manner, as the creation of a “hermeneutic circle,” it is more useful to understand it as the attempt to apply a fundamental anthropology to a text by “reducing” the literal meanings of the text to those of that anthropology. This process inverts the extension of the originary sign to other beings as extensions of its originary sacred content. The plurality of signs can come into being only through their analogy with the originary sign, and the hermeneutic act consists in explaining how the new sign might have been derived from the old, for example by showing how its new object functions in an way analogous to the originary object. Before WWII this procedure had already long been applied to literary texts, the anthropology implicit in such texts being understood in terms either of a sacred narrative—which has the advantage over all “scientific” accounts of including an explicit origin—or of a less explicit notion of human morality, for which literary works or biblical tales were examined for possible “lessons” on the model of such compositions as Aesop’s Fables.
The practices of, e.g., anagogic biblical interpretation illustrate this process of reduction. Their point is to find in a text, say from the Old Testament, parallels with the story of Jesus’ life or with the history of human salvation, so that the different texts of the Bible can be understood as embodying versions of varying complexity of the same overall narrative. What is missing from such accounts is that this “same” story is in effect a universal anthropology, the essential story of humanity.
The new criticism that arose after the war and in whose wake we continue to live was guided on the contrary by a universal anthropological intuition derived from the Holocaust: that human society was defined by victimary relations. This apparently restrictive goal, which defined a systematic hermeneutic as opposed both to religious and to humanistic-moral interpretations, was the source of the new anthropological perspective that we came to call postmodernism, which is most commonly defined in Lyotard’s terms as rejecting “metanarratives” or master narratives (that Lyotard’s term métarécit is commonly translated master narrative no doubt reflects the continuing politicization of the question even from the original book to its translation). Despite its often puerile antinomianism, the postmodern’s across the board legitimation of victimary resentment has surely been highly productive. What teacher has not seen a formerly mediocre student blossom and begin to work with real intensity on a project that allows him, or often, her, to exploit personal resentment? The great irony of the Holocaust is in legitimizing the resentments of everyone other than the Jews, resentments that after 1967 were often turned against the Jews themselves.
Postmodern thought, which reached self-consciousness if not maturity in post-structuralism, is not altogether compatible with (social) science. Its critique of “oppression” is not straightforward political analysis but is grounded in a critique of texts founded on an ultimately anthropological moral intuition that is unverifiable, and certainly “unfalsifiable,” by scientific procedures. Thus the historical intuition that flowed from WWII led to the enthronement of humanistic studies as a rival to social or human science. The postmodern master Derrida’s most programmatic work, De la grammatologie, attacked not merely the metaphysics of Rousseau and Plato but the human/anthropological science, notably that of Lévi-Strauss, that was founded upon it.
When it becomes possible to write a decent, apolitical history of postwar thought, it will become clear that the Nazi-Jew model provided by the Holocaust was its key point of departure in the theoretical as well as in the political sphere. Postwar thinkers applied different forms of “deconstruction” to the intellectual bases of virtually every institution of their own society, all of which appeared to impose the authority of a powerful center over its periphery, whether colonial, sexual, or economic. But in a history of the era that privileges its epistemological and ultimately ethical discoveries over its critique of “capitalism” or the “patriarchy,” René Girard will emerge as its most powerful thinker, indeed, as the culmination of postwar victimary thought. For the very reason that Girard is the most explicitly victimary of all these theorists, he elucidates the structure of victimage on its most fundamental and consequently least politicized level. As the apogee of the victimary era, his work makes the transition from victimary to truly anthropological thought.
Yet it is not fortuitous that Girard’s personality and role in the profession, unlike those of his controversial and far less original contemporary Paul de Man, has not had an influence commensurate with the value of his thought. We cannot deny the marginality of Girard’s ideas in the academic marketplace as well as the fact that few of his students have had particularly successful careers, whereas de Man’s students still dominate the profession’s older generation. Seemingly Girard’s ideas have obtained only modest academic success in comparison with the elusive and ultimately derivative lucubrations of de Man not in spite of but because of their power and anthropological significance.
We must avoid attributing this disparity to personal factors, or cynically dismissing it as an application of Gresham’s law to critical theory. We should rather explain the leftist politics of the practitioners of “critical theory” by the “supplementary” enhancement of this class’s traditional intellectual activity by the plus-value of the Holocaust. The victimary model becomes a source of power for textual analysts because the universalization of the Holocaust paradigm requires the deconstruction of all systems of authority, particularly those of (Christian) Western civilization. Presumably the destiny of all such systems is to lead to Auschwitz. That this critique of authority is ultimately a critique of the human itself will become more apparent in the apocalyptic thought of the late postmodern era. But for this very reason it is rich in new anthropological insights that the less radical critiques of previous eras, notably that of Marxism, could not attain.
Independently of superficially political considerations, one obvious factor in the greater popularity of deconstructive over Girardian analysis is the former’s greater attention to the details of texts, not all of which can be dismissed as mere wordplay. Although both analyses are reductive, Girard’s evacuates difference rather than deconstructing it; this is his greatest strength but also a source of dissatisfaction. Where Derrida and his epigones focus on attacking point by point the “positive” texts of philosophy / metaphysics, along with elements of fiction that can be said to share their metaphysical authority over a “normal” universe—one they view as in fact maintained by binary violence—Girard uses texts partially and positively, at first in Mensonge romantique as themselves sources of a critique of desire/difference, and then in La violence et le sacré to illustrate their at least partial awareness of the nullity of difference. Girard continually dismisses all other modes of thought than his own, but rarely confronts specific texts. When he does (for example, in his analyses of Freud and Lévi-Strauss in La violence and Des choses cachées), he simply points out their failure despite noble efforts to attain his mimetic insights rather than claiming to discover in them the inability of Western/human thought to grasp its inherent immorality. For Girard, other texts either illustrate (as literature) or fail to illustrate (as theory) the insights revealed in his own work, whereas the deconstructors, like so many emulators of Hercule Poirot, excitedly seek in them evidence of the fraudulence of our entire edifice of thought and interaction.
And when Girard does denounce the inauthenticity of certain texts, what he “deconstructs” is their pretension at a rebellious difference from authority that allies them with the sympathies of the deconstructors. In any event, his interest in this kind of debunking diminishes as he increasingly concerns himself with positive anthropology rather than textual critique. Girard may admire the normal no more than Derrida, but rather than promoting the resentments of the various victimary groups of Western civilization, he conceives the Judeo-Christian “defense of the victim” as an ethical imperative that focuses our attention more on the future than the past; the problem isn’t whether we have been victimizing one or another group but whether we can maintain the order of civilization as a whole in the face of weapons capable of annihilating life on earth. Girard’s focus on violence rather than resentment makes him view Hiroshima as ultimately more important than Auschwitz; we can recover from new Auschwitz-like horrors like the massacres in Rwanda, but not from a new Hiroshima with bombs thousands of times more powerful and numerous. That this shift is in some sense a turning away from the moral basis of the human is a point worth reflecting on for the future.
In the final analysis, the postmodern critique exemplified by Derrida, although focused beyond the oppression of the standard victimary groups by the society that created the Holocaust, remains an attack on the metaphysical basis of “Western civilization” rather than a full-fledged anthropology. GA has turned différance to good use as a constructive category, but that is not the project of its creator, and certainly not of his followers. Girard, in contrast, is concerned with the fragility of our defenses against violence in general. This attitude has no doubt more affinities with conservative than with radical thought, if only in its disinterest in the social resentments that fill the texts of “theory”—texts that illustrate sans le savoir Barthes’ original idea of écriture as a discourse, characteristically on the left, that hides its value judgments in presuppositions. But Girard’s thought remains open to a “left Girardism” that anyone who attends a COV&R meeting will recognize: the “victims” identified are the same as those of “theory,” but the denunciation is worded as scapegoating and the model changed from binary oppression/discrimination/dehumanization to all-against-one massacre. This opening to the left reflects Girard’s discomfort with affirming the normal, which in our times is liberal democracy, as more than a dubiously efficient barrier against ultimate chaos. The looming apocalypse makes seemingly irrelevant the examination, let alone appreciation, of the constructive power of mimesis and in particular of the market, which operates to prevent chaotic violence by generating new degrees of freedom for its participants.
I need not belabor the point that GA is on the other side of the divide, taking a positive view of the normal in general and of liberal democracy in particular. No doubt there remains today a vast clientele for victimary thinking that resists and dismisses non-victimary thought of all kinds. But although the academy has not turned away from its leftism in any obvious sense, it (and this “it” must surely be better defined) has turned away from “theory” because it is disillusioned with humanistic thought and the humanities in general, which are increasingly viewed on the rest of the campus as useful only as a source of techniques—writing and foreign language skills. The decline of “theory” offers us an opportunity to foreground the advance of GA, in the sense that GA’s superiority over its competitors in the theoretical sphere is surely greater now than in the past. But more important than securing for GA a modicum of publicity is the necessity of understanding how (and if) it can help us to make a new case for humanistic thought in the face of a growing scientism that subordinates all thinking about the human to that of the social and especially the biological sciences.
The first work of the “new” postmodern criticism in France was Barthes’ Degré zéro de l’écriture, which appeared in 1953. In contrast with the leftism of the more specifically postmodern criticism that began in the 1960s and flourished after 1968, Barthes’ work originates as a critique of Marxism. Interestingly enough, Truffaut’s famous 1954 article “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” generally seen as the first manifesto of the New Wave, was similarly a critique of knee-jerk leftism (and anticlericalism) in the film industry. That the postmodern dawns as a quasi-conservative reaction against leftist dogmatism is something the leftist intellectuals of subsequent generations have preferred to ignore.
Barthes’ idea of écriture is indeed better exemplified by the discourse of Stalinism than the defeated Nazism that even in its heyday had never elicited this kind of hermeneutic. If asked, the writers for Der Stürmer might well have replied that of course their writing was an écriture, that they wanted to “presuppose” the hatred of Jews because there was no point in limiting oneself to rational arguments; the same attitude informs the Muslim publications that perpetuate this great tradition today. The Stalinists, in contrast, would presumably have claimed that their écriture reflected the truths of “scientific” socialism. In an era whose greatest philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, would shortly declare himself a Marxist (Questions de méthode, 1957), it was urgent to make sure that Marxism was seen as a political doctrine rather than a presupposition of all thought. But Barthes’ concluding promotion of Camus’ L’étranger as the model for an écriture-free “zero degree of writing” would prove superficial; perhaps not coincidentally, Girard’s critique of this novel’s “bad faith” would be one of the decisive steps of his oeuvre.
Barthes’ critique of écriture, with a hope of finding a neutral discourse through writing, inspired and was inspired by the nouveau roman, which he championed and which seemed at the time an important development, a deconstruction of narrative as itself an écriture. But the real importance of Barthes’ concept is that for the first time it put into question not merely ideological language of the sort he began by criticizing, but language itself. In Qu’est-ce que la littérature (1947), Sartre had opposed to the opacity of poetry the transparency of prose, as though it embodied without conscious effort the sens plus pur [purer meaning] that Mallarmé had labored so hard to give the mots de la tribu [words of the tribe]. This nonproblematic transparency should be understood in conjunction with the (for us) strangely alinguistic space of freedom, the néant, which for Sartre separated human consciousness from its “intended” object. That the transparency of non-poetic language allowed us to understand and communicate the contents of this consciousness provided for Sartre a kind of implicit originary anthropology, perhaps a distant model for Girard’s equally alinguistic model of the event of human origin.
But Barthes’ new category of écriture put into question the very possibility of this transparency. The strong albeit undrawn implication of the fact that one had to seek the degré zéro through an ascetic reduction of qualifiers was that écriture was everywhere and no transparent rendering of experience was possible. Du coup, Sartre’s postwar Marxist turn was depreciated as regressive, less even in its Stalinist politics than in its inability to incorporate the new radical suspicion of language and representation as a whole, a suspicion that we have seen to be a direct outcome of the Holocaust, however little it was realized at the time.
It is certainly ironic that the postwar ère du soupçon was inaugurated by a critique of leftist, that is, victimary discourses. But they were victimary in a pre-Auschwitz mode that criticized the ideology of the oppressors as a rational if bad faith defense of their interests. The bourgeois is not aware that labor contracts rob workers of their surplus value; he is so to speak obliged by his class position to think and act in such terms, and denunciations of his hypocrisy are meant to recruit proletarian followers rather than to cultivate bourgeois guilt. The individual bourgeois who accepts Marx’s critique is expected to become, like his friend Engels, a Marxist, not remain like today’s “oppressors” merely a (guilt-ridden) bourgeois. Postwar victimary thinking had first to discredit the old variety before it could become victimary in a new, radical, and potentially anthropological way. This is also the case in cinema, where the Americanism of the early New Wave through A bout de souffle soon gave way to the hysterical leftism of Godard’s later work, which reflected the New Left in the same way that the rejected masters of “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” reflected the Old. (to be continued)