It is surely no coincidence that WWII, the real “war to end all wars,” included both Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the most extreme dehumanization of the “racial” Other and the bomb whose destructive potential put an end to the realistic possibility of all-out war. Auschwitz and Hiroshima cannot be separated historically; they should be considered together as the twin sources of the postmodern problematic. These two limiting experiences of victimage give us two different ways to think about processes that create victims, processes once called sacrificial but to which the term no longer applies in either case.
The Holocaust was the ultimate expression of the values of a “compact” community that excludes its nonmembers from humanity itself. In an ultimate desacralization of sacrifice, the Jews’ very status as victims was denied; they were to be exterminated without emotion as a “biological” threat to humanity.
Postcolonial theoreticians are fond of saying that the Holocaust merely brought home to Europe the relations Europe itself had practiced in Africa and elsewhere. Certainly the notion of racial superiority was a colonial import rather than an original component of antisemitism. But the mixture was not reducible to either of its original components; the Nazi treatment of the Jews crossed a line beyond the worst excesses of colonialism or chattel slavery. Unlike colonized peoples, the Jews could not by any stretch of the imagination be claimed to be inferior in capacity to their oppressors, nor was there any fig leaf of a “civilizing mission.” Leopold’s Congolese subjects were treated as expendable, and millions died in atrocious circumstances, but they were not exterminated as vermin.
Although the dead at Hiroshima were not objects of ideological hatred but merely citizens of an enemy nation, Hiroshima was likewise a new phenomenon, not merely because it involved an new kind of weapon, but because the idea of using such weapons was the extreme point of a strategy of mass destruction that modern warfare had not known even in WWI. The London blitz, the destruction of Dresden, the firebombing of Tokyo embodied a new idea of total war in which civilian populations were full-fledged military targets. To the extent that in the past an enemy soldier, the typical victim of war, had been a fellow combatant who could be honored in his falling, as in the moving if somewhat artificial opening sequence of La grande illusion, Hiroshima too could be considered a maximal desacralization of its victims, invisible to their airborne destroyers. The fact that this strategy had generated a weapon potentially far more powerful than necessary to realize even the destruction of whole cities was likewise the sign that a line had been crossed that put civilization in danger.
Both these events define new modes of human interaction in the postmodern era. Auschwitz, the Nazi-Jew model of absolute oppression, generates the victimary mode of thought whose absolutist critique, by turns liberating and constraining, of de jure and then de facto group differences continues to dominate the political and intellectual life of our age. This model’s gradual penetration of the public consciousness led to the postwar era’s most significant ethical transformations, the end of colonialism and segregation, as well as to the increasingly generalized suspicion of any form of “discrimination” between a superior and an inferior group. Accompanying these political developments is the central intellectual phenomenon of postmodernism, the deconstruction of the human scene of representation and the forms of authority it sustains. Given that this development is one of the roots of GA, we cannot simply repudiate postmodern victimary thinking en bloc.
Whatever the pervasiveness of victimary thinking, a case can be made that the legacy of Hiroshima is yet more substantial. Our constant preoccupation with inequality is a luxury we can afford only because since Hiroshima we live in the shadow of the bomb, enjoying the (relative) peace provided by the specter of Mutually Assured Destruction. It is the panicked knowledge that we possess for the first time in history the power to destroy all higher forms of life on our planet that has prevented a new outbreak of total war during the 65 years since the end of WWII.
The violence implemented at Hiroshima reflected the seriousness of the danger posed by the Axis’ ideology of social compactness to the universal model of reciprocal morality that guarantees the integrity of the human community. From the standpoint of Auschwitz, Hiroshima was a regrettable necessity. In contrast, from the perspective of Hiroshima, Auschwitz is best forgotten. Duras-Resnais’ 1959 masterpiece Hiroshima mon amour expresses this new self-consciousness as that of postwar Europe a mere 14 years after 1945—and only four years after Resnais’ groundbreaking documentary Nuit et brouillard brought the now-familiar imagery of the death camps to public attention. Hiroshima’s French heroine was cruelly humiliated by her triumphant compatriots for her liaison under the occupation with a German soldier, an innocent love that ends tragically with the soldier’s death. There is nowhere in the film the least sign of German violence; the soldier himself is not seen as a member of an occupying force but as a tender young man, nor, in sharp contrast with Melville’s 1949 “resistance” film Le silence de la mer, is it anywhere suggested that interaction with the enemy is an act of national disloyalty.
The beautifully conveyed but disquieting point of this film is that any horrors the Axis may have perpetrated during the war are no longer at issue. They lost, and we need not even consider Hiroshima as a punishment so terrible that it effaces the guilt of the Axis. All that counts is that we won; as the victors, we are the sole remaining Subjects and consequently the mourners of the war’s violence. We must now, Resnais’ film tells us, move on from Nuit et brouillard; Hiroshima, not Auschwitz or the Nanking massacre, is the appropriate emblem of what must not be repeated. And in terms of violence alone, this lesson is tautologically correct; the violence of the victors necessarily exceeds that of the defeated, all the more clearly when it involves a weapon whose reuse would endanger our survival.
Hiroshima mon amour may well be the only work of art that has been able to tell us non-scandalously to forget the Holocaust. It is able to do so because in its celebration of Hiroshima’s martyrdom it transcends all questions of guilt. The bomb causes vast suffering, but neither American generals or Japanese warlords are blamed, any more than the organizers of the Blitzkrieg or the Final Solution. Precisely because Hiroshima is the symbol of a violence that cannot be repeated, it can stand for all violence, and its commemoration, for the promise of no future violence. The couple’s final coming together in love and identity, be it the absent one of Never(s), is about as close as postwar cinema has come to realizing in esthetic terms René Girard’s reading of the lesson of the bomb as an ultimate call for human love.
Girard’s work inhabits the extreme limit of victimary thought where it becomes genuine anthropology. In a gesture of sublime radicalism, Girard proclaims “emissary” victimage to be the fundamental and indeed the sole mechanism of human culture. What defines us as human is the risk of mutual annihilation in the course of a mimetic crisis, a Hobbesian condition from which a given community can be saved only by focusing all its aggressive energies on a single “emissary” victim. It is in discharging their violence against the victim that the remainder of the group constitutes itself as a human community under the protection of the violent sacred that the expelled/murdered victim is construed as incarnating. Having offered extensive evidence for the emissary mechanism in La violence et le sacré (1972), Girard returned six years later in Des choses cachées… to present the Christianity of the Gospels as anti-victimary and therefore anti-cultural, correlative not with a modification of the emissary mechanism but with its abolition.
In Girard’s reading of the Gospels, the emissary mechanism’s fundamental nature was revealed by Jesus 2000 years ago. But the specific historical context Girard provides for his claim to rescue the Gospels’ true message from its obscuring by “sacrificial Christianity” is defined by the possibility of annihilation brought about by the postwar existence of nuclear weapons. Girard sees the escalation of violence in modern war as a long-term effect of the Christian revelation that deprives sacrifice, ultimately even “sacrificial Christianity,” of its power to control human violence through the sacralization of victims. For Girard, this undermining of sacrificial practices by Jesus’ revelation of their underlying mechanism is the only independent variable of modernity. Our inability to sacralize victims by the mythologizing methods of the past leads to the multiplication of victims in the era of “texts of persecution.” Violence can no longer drive out violence.
In the final stage of this development, the originary fear of self-annihilation resurfaces in the condition of absolute danger reestablished in the postwar era by the nuclear bomb. As Girard notes, we speak of the bomb without referring to any specific model or possessor. The bomb, like the originary sacred, is a concentration of absolute violence whose subsistence outside the human community guarantees its safety, but whose constant menace reminds us that the danger has been only deferred, not eliminated.
Because Girard understands only one genuine cultural mechanism, that of emissary victimage, all modern, post-sacrificial means of deferring violence, including those of liberal democracy, are only stopgap measures. The fact that, in contrast, no specific mechanism is available to us to implement Jesus’ lesson of love, is precisely its point. Mechanisms are structures of violence; love is not a mechanism, but a free relation to a unique Other. If I must dictate to you what procedure to use to love your neighbor, I am prescribing a rite rather than a free act of love.
In the rapid historical overview of Des choses cachées…, Girard makes no mention of the historical specificity of WWII as the ultimate struggle against humanity’s worst moral excesses in which the bomb was originally produced. Instead, he reflects on the stabilization of the Cold War under threat of MAD as a restatement of the terms of the biblical book of Revelation (called in French L’Apocalypse), which Girard interprets forcefully as referring only to human, not divine violence. He reasons that the more explicitly the human social order is shown to depend on the deferral of violence, the more obvious it must become that this deferral can be made definitive only by a universal determination to love one another.
Pushed to its limit, Girard’s anthropology of revelation abolishes itself in pure exhortation:aimez-vous les uns les autres. No doubt in its own terms this is indeed the post-sacrificial essence of the human; if we could all simply obey this precept, we would need no other, either to understand “human nature” or to conduct ourselves in such a way as to make human society perpetually peaceful. Now that history has come up with the bomb as the objective correlative of Jesus’ revelation that our peace is based on arbitrary violence, we can avoid destroying ourselves only by abolishing once and for all the false differences of mimetic desire that are the last traces of the old sacrificial mechanism and enter a realm of universal love that is also one of wholly unrestricted freedom. Since it was the emissary mechanism that originally defined the human, in abolishing it we will have become not so much truly human as post-human, a state curiously analogous to that of Hegel’s end of history and its more concrete successor, Marx’s utopian realm of freedom to which we are to accede with the abolition of the violence of class society.
Religious and rational anthropologies may be distinguished by the source of their theory of transcendence: is transcendence inherent in representation derived from pre-human immanence or is it presented as of extra-human origin? A generative theory of the human must explain what makes us uniquely capable of using signs; the “bracketing” of any such explanation and of the ostensive-religious domain in which the explanation would have to be situated is the defining feature of the Western metaphysical/philosophical tradition, from Plato to Wittgenstein. Although Girard’s anthropology, which is based in human interaction rather than propositional thought, does not presuppose the existence of language, neither does it confront metaphysics at its foundation by making the emergence of representation central to its model of anthropogenesis. Thus in understanding the Johannine Logos as the fundamental expression of human love incarnate in Jesus, Girard does not, despite the normal associations of the word in Greek and in all related languages (Verbum, Verbe, Word…) link it in any fundamental sense to the phenomena of human language and representation.
In order to attribute the originary sacralization of the central object to méconnaissance, Girard relies on the originary opposition between the Logos of peace and the Heraclitean Logos of violence that he proposes in Chapter II, 4 of Des choses cachées…. Yet to posit this opposition in the absence of an originary theory of human representation is tacitly to accept the central presupposition of metaphysics that, however we may analyze its content, the form of language may be assumed to subsist independently of any historical origin. In opposing the nonviolent Logos incarnate in Jesus to the violent Logos of the philosophers, Girard fails to see that the only way to avoid a symmetry of doubles is by means of a generative human theory of representation that would derive “vertical” or “symbolic” representation from “natural” or “horizontal” processes. We may indeed take John’s description of the originary Word of peace that was rejected and expelled as the germ of such a theory, but only if we understand the deferral of violence effected by the Word as inherent in the mediating sign itself rather than a general condition of human interaction from which violence can someday be expelled once and for all.
GA’s originary hypothesis defines human representation as the product of an originary deferral of potential collective violence. The founding act of humanity that consists in renouncing appetitive possession of the central object and designating it to one’s fellows by means of the sign is in essence an act of peace and self-awareness, the first gesture of human love as distinct from mere animal affection. The communal phenomenon of representation inserts between human violence and human meaning a space within which human self-knowledge emerges, the intuitive basis for the Sartrean néant. Within this space of signification, all worldly violence is deferred, so that we are precisely not forced to choose between the Logos of violence and the Logos of love.
Grosso modo, the legacies of Hiroshima and Auschwitz impinge respectively on two different types of relationships. The victimary thought that derives from Auschwitz governs inter-group relationships where there is a history or suspicion of inequality: white-black, man-woman…, and in global terms, between the “first” and the “third” world. Most crucially, this suspicion and the resentment it arouses are crystallized today in the fraught relations between Islam and the Judeo-Christian West, and our efforts to avoid the appearance of Islamophobia, a word modeled on homophobia, itself an innuendo, reflects the concept’s victimary associations. In contrast, the heritage of Hiroshima is the nuclear standoff that prevented WWIII, and which until recently opposed the “first” world to the “second,” the Communist bloc which, nearly until its last days, was generally regarded as a symmetrical, equal rival of the West.
Since the end of the Cold War, the contrast between these categories has become less clear-cut. Today, the hottest point of the Islam-West conflict is Iran’s nuclear program, the capstone of its struggle for regional hegemony. Beyond its stated desires to wipe Israel off the map, Iran sees nuclear arms, as presumably did the late Saddam Hussein, as the key to shedding the role of third-world victim and becoming a full-fledged player on the international scene.
China’s acquisition of nuclear arms was a declaration of equality, as were France’s and Britain’s, and even India’s and Pakistan’s, countries concerned less with rivaling the West than each other. The world’s other nuclear powers, Israel and North Korea, vastly different in almost every respect, both feel vulnerable to attack from hostile forces in their immediate neighborhood; Israel keeps its forces “secret” as a deterrent, whereas North Korea displays them to extract blackmail from the great powers. In none of these accessions to the nuclear club was the dominant relationship between the new nuclear power and the West/First World one of victimary hostility. The Asian countries were no longer “post-colonial,” and if France resented American hegemony, it was with the resentment of a former Great Power rather than of a former colony.
In contrast with all of these, Iran, having carried out an Islamic revolution dominated by victimary resentment, remains an insurgent country fighting the West by proxy throughout the Middle East. If it obtains nuclear weapons it will be the first country practicing victimary politics to possess this symbol of symmetry. The crucial question thus raised, and which no “theoretical” position can answer, is whether possession of these weapons would make Iran more or less responsible, more impressed with a fear of MAD or more prone to jihadist adventurism and brinkmanship. If Iran gets the bomb, we will be forced for the first time to wonder whether or not the politics of resentment, the perverse legacy of Auschwitz, will trump those of Hiroshima and generate a regional and perhaps a worldwide conflagration. Such a disaster would constitute the world’s ultimate disavowal of the firstness the Hebrews played the major role in liberating from the uncreative scene of ritual sacrifice; it would be humanity’s definitive example of cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Humanity is from the outset condemned to a fuite en avant. The means we have historically evolved for the deferral of violence are sources of ever-increasing danger; the ever-greater energies stored up by these mechanisms supply the driving force of technological and ethical progress while making their potential breakdown ever more disastrous. The postwar world after WWII has reached a limit; the bomb is indeed a revelatory instrument. Human history will henceforth remain in its shadow; absent an inconceivable catastrophe, the toothpaste of nuclear knowledge will never be returned to the tube.
But the postmodernity that lives in the shadow of the bomb is also illuminated by the light of the Holocaust. Victimary thought does more than repeat the truths of the Gospels. To make the opposition between oppressor and victim the foundation of the human requires that we construct a hypothetical human scene of the origin of transcendence. The suspicion of central authority that animates deconstruction transforms the universe of metaphysics, which takes language for granted, into a quasi-anthropological realm of deferral and supplementation, categories that imply, whether or not for the deconstructors themselves, an emergent or generative notion of the sign. Such a conception is implicit as well in René Girard, the ultimate victimary thinker, whose anthropogenesis is centered on the Logos.
The only way to get beyond the resentment of the post-Holocaust victimary critique of difference is to grant admission in this model to the category of firstness, as Adam Katz has shown us how to do for GA’s originary hypothesis. For the archetype of the first is not the Nazi, with his pretension of “racial” ontological superiority, but his nemesis the Jew, the heir of the inventors/discoverers of the One God, whose sole demand is that he not be resented for the chronological priority that has allowed him to make a gift of his revelation to all humanity.
We have seen ever more clearly since 9/11 that postmodern victimary thought has been a creative and well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate response to the Nazis’ maximal anti-Semitism. The true Final Solution to the Jewish Question is rather to go beyond the victimary to the post-millennial acceptance of firstness. Only thus can we interpret Girard’s exhortation of universal love in terms of the necessary differences of modern society, integrating the insights of the two Testaments while leaving an opening to the universalism of Islam and other religions.