I regret having waited for so long to explore the issues raised by the integration of the difference between the sexes within GA’s egalitarian, reciprocal vision of the human. Adam Katz’ addition of firstness to our vocabulary facilitates this new reflection on women’s place in human culture, which I will baptize originary feminism.
Although I have always disliked the deliberate stridency of the term phallogocentrism, it cannot be denied the merit of expressing what might be deemed the originary sin of the human logos—whose connection with the original sin of Genesis will be discussed below—since according to our hypothesis the reciprocity of the originary exchange of signs (although not necessarily that of the ensuing sparagmos and feast) would have involved men alone. No doubt our insistence in assuming that the originary event was an essentially masculine affair, although borne out by all the evidence of human civilization, is a major explanatory factor in both the largely masculine composition of GA’s interest group and GA’s relative failure to penetrate the victimary thought-patterns of the academy. I would rather stop thinking altogether than surrender to PC and “feminize” the originary event. But having hypothesized that men were the inaugurators of language and that women, who inherited the same evolving speech apparatus as men, acquired it only subsequently, GA needs to reflect on the historical interaction between this differential relationship to representation and the different biological and social roles of the sexes, including the persistence until very recently of male firstness as an unproblematically dominant status and the rapidity of its dissolution in advanced postwar societies.
If the originary hypothesis assumes that men invent/discover language, it is not because women are somehow “less worthy,” but for the simple reason that the sex that does not bear children has every reason to be more violent than the one that does. Given that human infants need additional postnatal care to give their mimetically advanced brains time to develop, their mothers must be more specialized anatomically than those of related species. By the same token, males can afford to specialize in more violent pursuits, whence the enhanced dimorphism characteristic of our species. If we have learned one thing from Girard, it is that the defining trait of our species is the threat posed to its social organization by its own violence. If we accept this view, it follows that it is the males, the bearers of this violence, who crucially need representational culture, and hence that women, primary in their importance to our biological survival, would logically be second to men in their acquisition of the signs of culture. Women’s greater biological value is a mixed blessing: it results in honor killings, harems, and pornography as well as love lyrics and women and children first. Rather than “diplomatically” avoiding discussion of woman’s cultural secondarity in our victimary age, we should rather insist on this secondarity and its consequences, both by way of explaining the limitations of women’s cultural role in the past and of exploring the results of the extraordinary feminine liberation of the postwar era.
Women’s near-total exclusion from the social-political process throughout all but the most recent years of human history is surely no news to feminist herstorians; the news is rather how suddenly this exclusion, taken largely for granted since time immemorial, became a scandal. In advanced industrial countries, women’s progress since WWII has been so spectacular that we have to make a real effort to remind ourselves that French women couldn’t vote until 1945 and even American women got the vote only in 1920. Among the fruits of the postwar application of the Nazi-Jew paradigm to all unequal institutional relationships, I have tended to pay more attention to the intergroup triumphs of the Civil Rights movement and the end of colonialism and apartheid. But postwar feminism, whose emblematic manifesto was Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 Le deuxième sexe, is in many ways the Holocaust’s most significant “gift” of all, the most profound demonstration of the ultimately deferring nature of firstness.
These developments reveal that however many hundreds of thousands of years ago men invented/discovered representational culture (and however backward women’s status still remains in many parts of the world), women as fellow human beings are eventually bound to acquire not merely the power of speech but the opportunity of using language and other forms of representation with the same social facility as men. That the victimary thinker sees this resentfully as retrospective proof of (male) humanity’s inherent injustice rather than of its fundamental if deferred reciprocity reflects the perhaps eternally unsettled state of the question of firstness, the great cultural issue of the postwar era. When is inequality justified as a means to future equality? Perfect reciprocity can exist only in a state of deferral, and once the victimary cat is out of the bag, it becomes impossible to deny the legitimacy of another’s resentment. In this as in all human endeavors, resentment is the mother of the conflictive historical evolution by which it can eventually be converted into love.
Let us begin our reflection on originary feminism by observing that in the Garden of Eden, it is Eve, the representative of woman’s cultural lateness, who takes the first bite of the fruit and is therefore first to acquire “knowledge.” For biblical thought, the first human to heed the voice of resentment was female. But the substance of the “knowledge” she obtains has never been clearly understood. It is a first step in the right direction to note that the substance of the “apple” itself is not the point, that the wisdom it imparts comes wholly from disobeying the injunction not to eat it. But this does not tell us how to interpret Eve’s disobedience: what exactly does God’s injunction aim to prevent the human couple from discovering, and how should we explain the sexual shame that is the immediate consequence of this discovery?
At the point of the snake’s temptation, language already exists as a classification system. Indeed, the circumstances of its gift to Adam by God, properly interpreted, offer confirmation to our thesis of male firstness:
Yahweh God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’ So from the soil Yahweh God fashioned all the wild beasts and all the birds of heaven. These he brought to the man to see what he would call them; each one was to bear the name the man would give it. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts. But no helpmate suitable for man was found for him. So Yahweh God made the man fall into a deep sleep. And while he slept, he took one of his ribs and enclosed it in flesh. Yahweh God built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman . . . (Jerusalem Bible, Genesis 2:18-23)
What is fascinating about this second version of creation is that it is only through naming the animals that Adam discovers that he has no “helpmate,” with the consequence that woman has to be made from his own body. Language is given to the man in order to name the animals, which in our hypothesis would be the first creatures subject to sacred interdiction and the obvious candidates for the originary central object. Only in a world already governed by this “sacrificial” sacred does woman appear. This must not of course be understood biologically, but in terms of the birth of culture. Here biblical intuition confirms that of the originary hypothesis; the sacred and with it, we may suppose, the sacrificial is applied to the animal before the human world. The woman is created “late” because her accession to the realm of culture and sacrality is late.
Yet the world is still innocent. Let us not be in too much of a hurry to smile at the naivete of assuming that language, hence the sacred, can exist in the absence of sacred interdiction. This Edenic world of originary obedience may not correspond to any real state of nascent humanity, but it corresponds quite well to a naïve anthropology for which in a prelapsarian world transgression is not merely punishable by death but simply presumed unthinkable.
Let us recall that these texts were composed in a hierarchical society that had lived through the usurpation of the big-man and his transformation into king and emperor, and that the big-man’s sin is not lack of reciprocity with his fellow humans but usurpation of the god’s role at the center of the circle of redistribution, the transformation of a shared and partial ministry into a unique sacred stewardship. This usurpation is no doubt the basis, not for “original sin” itself, but for our consciousness of it, for which it offers an explicit model. And given that GA proposes a hypothesis of the masculine origin of language, it is of the greatest interest that this consciousness is associated in the Bible with female resentment. The archetypically resentful snake speaks to Eve rather than Adam because her sex’s secondarity with respect to culture makes her the more susceptible of the two to his message.
Thus the most fundamental content of Eve’s “knowledge” is simply that of language itself. Whereas Adam is given language by God, Eve must usurp it in a world where only males use or have the right to use language. It is this primary usurpation that is at the base of all the other subversive contents we may wish to attribute to the “knowledge” Eve acquires, including most importantly that of the essential equivalence between the human users of language and the divine center in which desire is concentrated: “See, the man has become like one of us, with his knowledge of good and evil” (3:22). Formulated in GA terms, this is the understanding that both God and (hu)man depend for their Being on representation, each standing as the guarantee of the other.
The anthropological content of the entire biblical passage is best understood in terms of firstness. Woman’s lateness with respect to culture allows Eve to understand not only Adam’s firstness but God’s. That is to say, the knowledge her disobedience provides is that just as Adam’s relationship to her is one of firstness—meaning that he is first to engage in the human activity of representation but that, as with all firstness, those originally excluded will in principle acquire the same ability through imitation of him—so God’s creation of humanity is itself an example of firstness. This is the real anthropological lesson of God’s “man has become like one of us.” The mastery of representation that is God’s is but one step beyond that of man, just as man’s was one step ahead of woman’s. The Christian felix culpa that problematizes God’s transcendental superiority (to which corresponds in Jewish tradition the gift of the Torah itself) reveals that this transcendent status is in fact a quality that God possesses first in order that (even if superficially against his will) humanity eventually acquire it. The couple’s sin is to have exposed the myth that God’s transcendence is ontologically inaccessible to humanity. This is formulated as “the knowledge of good and evil” because it is the awareness that one is free to obey and consequently to disobey the interdiction that founds the sacred and God’s transcendent status. To put this in epistemological terms is to invert the situation and become aware that the interdiction is itself the product of humanity’s self-aware or free renouncement, mediated by the sign-as-aborted-gesture-of-appropriation.
The most intriguing question raised by the biblical story is that of the connection between Eve’s and subsequently Adam’s “knowledge” and the seemingly unrelated phenomenon of sexual shame: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked” (3:7). Eve eats first, reversing her lateness, but the discovery of nakedness belongs to the couple indistinguishably. Given woman’s late acquisition of culture/language, we may assume that while man alone possessed (the right to) language, sexuality was a form of object-desire, as indeed many “misogynistic” cultures do their best to affirm even today, often with great brutality toward women who dare assert their subjectivity. Eve’s acquisition of language demonstrates that human sexuality is irremediably part of culture in a way that eating and sleeping are not. Although the collective desire for food leads in our hypothesis to humanization, outside the collective context, food’s reality is that of a passive object whose sacrality can only be maintained through a supplementary deployment of cultural energy, for example in the Torah’s many dietary restrictions. Sex, on the other hand, is inherently sacred; it takes the form of a gift exchange between two people even independently of such social institutions as the “exchange of women.”
The symmetry of man and woman asserted by the Biblical passage is not originary but new; it imitates the interactions of deferral in the originary event. The man who had seen the woman as an object of appetite must now see her as a fellow participant in desire. Just as in the originary configuration the central object was transfigured from a simple object of appetite to a desired Subject that made necessary the abortion of the gesture of appropriation and its conversion into a sign, so the woman who enters culture is no longer a mere object of sexual appetite but a person who obliges the man to defer his desire before implementing it. This mental “foreplay” makes the anticipated reality of sex “shameful” in the same sense that the originary producers of the sign demonstrating their renouncement of the central object were expressing their “shame” for desiring what was defined by their gestures themselves as forbidden. Only in the orgy of the sparagmos could all shame be lifted by the symmetry of the appropriative gestures of all. Similarly, the taboo status of the words for sexual organs and activities resembles that of the name-of-God, the originary sign being too potent a reminder of the concreteness of the originary central object. The “monotheistic” One God who cannot be named cannot be pointed to either in the center of the circle; the flames of the “burning bush” hide his being just as the clothes God provides Adam and Eve cover their nakedness.
We can see a parallel development to the conversion of Eve’s resentment at lateness into the discovery of the symmetry between God and humanity in the origin of lyric poetry with Sappho (see “Naissance du Moi lyrique: du féminin au masculin,” Poétique 46 [Spring 1981]). In opposition to Homer’s celebration of the army, whose role in guaranteeing the society’s survival makes it “objectively” significant, Sappho asserts her preference for “what one loves” as the ultimate criterion of the cultural object. As so to speak a corollary to Eve’s discovery, Sappho discovers/invents that the individual love of the lover is just as good a model of the creation of significance as the collective “love” of the social order, since both share the same scenic structure modeled on the originary desire for the center.
It is not coincidental that Sappho’s love object, like that of nearly all love poetry, is female. For biological reasons that need no elaboration here, women’s bodies are of particular significance, and have consequently been the privileged objects of the sign-enhanced or cultural selection that produces human beauty. Yet although men’s differential attraction to women “selected” the latter for sexual beauty in the course of the evolution of the species, it was nonetheless a woman who first valorized the objects of this selection as worthy of the same quality of esthetic attention as les affaires d’état. We should understand Sappho’s affirmation as an archetypal example of love’s transcendence of resentment—in this case, resentment of woman’s secondary cultural status—as the source of artistic creation.
It may well be the most important achievement of the victimary era to have finally revealed the real significance of women’s cultural lateness. For although firstness is a necessary precursor of lateness and the resentment that accompanies it, it is the latter, not the former, that is humanity’s typical state. In romantic-Heideggerian terms, we are all thrown into the world, which is to say, characterized by lateness with respect to human culture. But if this is so then it is truly the daughters of Eve who are the most typical human beings. So perhaps we are justified in using she instead of he after all…