The other day I learned from an acquaintance in Austria of a description of me he had posted on a blog devoted to evolutionary science called Menschliches Verhalten in evolutionärer Perspektive (http://www.mve-liste.de/): einer der interessantesten, fleissigsten – und wenigstbekannten – Intellektuellen der Gegenwart. [One of the most interesting, diligent—and least-known—of present-day intellectuals.]
Indeed. GA is a pretty well-organized way of thinking, as A New Way of Thinking attempts to demonstrate. Yet it is virtually unknown outside the tiny circle of Anthropoetics collaborators. I find it hard to believe that any comparable obscurity exists. Jacques Derrida, who grasped the postmodern Zeitgeist better than anyone, expressed its attitude toward GA in 1997 by refusing to be associated with our special issue on deconstruction after having agreed to it in writing. When Richard van Oort, then a student at UC Irvine and enrolled in Derrida’s seminar, presented the great man with some GA-inflected questions, he declined to answer them with a comment to the effect that this would be too much of an effort. Presumably he was willing to answer questions about his work from within his own context but not to play in someone else’s field. But I wonder how many “fields” like GA Derrida ever encountered, and how many such opportunities he turned down. I’d venture to say that his reaction to GA was unique; no criticism, much less ridicule, but above all, no contact. And this has remained the response to GA of the entire world intellectual establishment for over 30 years since The Origin of Language, despite 17 years of Anthropoetics and over 400 Chronicles.
There is something glorious about working undisturbed in one’s own universe, never having to answer criticism and abuse from rivals. The current intellectual world strikes me as a stew of frivolity and wrongheadedness, dominated by knee-jerk victimary politics and hidebound “philosophical” arguments, either contemptuous of religion understood with all the subtlety of an atheist best-seller or else beholden to religious dogma and obsessed by American tradition, macho popular culture, “classical” philosophy… Yet obscurity is hard to interpret as a sign of world-historical success, and complacency at the age of 70 seems like pulling the plug. Whether or not GA will someday become “popular,” it is incumbent on us to explain more precisely than heretofore GA’s continued obscurity.
Discussing this phenomenon with Adam Katz, the first approximation we arrived at was that the reaction to GA was a kind of ultimate antisemitism, so effective that one doesn’t even need to hate it, much less exterminate it. It suffices to ignore it, not so much in the English as in the French sense: ignorer isn’t to pretend not to notice something but simply not to know it. No resentment but serene ignorance. People resent the Jews because they discovered the One God—and as Adam reminded me, by the same token reestablished contact with the equality of the originary scene that had been obscured in the era of the archaic empires by emperors and the like who declared themselves gods. If there’s only One God, then all of us are essentiallyequal. Well then, if the Jews/Hebrews discovered/invented monotheism, the unity of the center of the human scene, GA discovers/invents the unity of this scene as a whole. But if Jewish firstness cannot be forgotten and provokes jealousy, GA’s firstness can indeed be ignored, which is to say, denied. The One God, however despised, irritated believers in other gods from the beginning and ultimately triumphed; as I showed in Science and Faith, persecuting the One God in the form of Jesus, and I might add, already in his original (non)form, is tantamount to worshipping him. The One God and “his” people obey a principle of cohesion that arouses jealousy because it is in effect closer to the originary human configuration than the syncretistic combinations of local gods and centralized emperor-worship that reigned in the empires. The Romans had emperor-gods, but they also had gods for everything else, and ultimately the absurdity of this theology from an originary standpoint could not be denied. Xenophanes’ devastating quip that horses would make themselves horse-gods foretold the end of ancient polytheism.
The Jews’ monotheistic “discovery” could not be ignored because it reconnected present (“modern”) history with the still-living originary moral intuition that many generations of hierarchical society had done their best to obscure, or marginalize in “mysteries” and the like. But today this connection has been forgotten for what might appear the symmetrically opposite reason. The moral intuition of universal equality remains with us, but its universality is understood as implying not a unitary origin but one infinitely dispersed. The mere fact of GA’s postulation of an originary event puts an un-PC value on firstness. GA’s minimalistic insistence on the unitary nature of the human scene, however much I claim that this intuition lies at the heart of all humanistic thought, seems too frightening even to ridicule. And telling people that they really share this intuition without knowing it has about the same success as telling people they don’t really like broccoli.
In the victimary world, entities are enthusiastically multiplied as soon as phenomena provide evidence for them. Any sign of “diversity” is hastily added to the ontology; not to do so would be to “victimize” the late to the hegemonic advantage of the first. Thus the joke is on us; we return to the origin of the moral model in a unique scene of origin, to be told that to posit a single origin is itself immoral, since human morality demands we respect the unique origin of every human culture and subculture, and consequently that to affirm the obvious uniformity of our moral values is to suppress all the differences of detail that our model forces us to neglect. That the Holocaust’s extreme expression of envy of the First is made to serve in the victimary era as a pretext for every kind of ontological excess is an irony lost on its perpetrators, who see themselves as righters of the wrongs of our past oppressive, colonizing oikophilia.
A partial explanation of the persistence of postwar victimary thought is that it has operated fairly successfully on the basis of its post-Holocaust insight alone: suspect asymmetry. We may take postwar feminism as the paradigmatic case of victimary achievement. Women have clearly improved their lot with respect to men, to the extent that in areas like university education they occupy something like 60% of the seats, and their presence in professional schools has steadily progressed from softer to harder subjects. This has made the tone of “gender relations” much less strident than it was in the 1970s, when postwar feminism was just coming into its own and accusations of “sexism” were everywhere. My subjective experience is that communications between the sexes are much freer and more open today than 30 years ago. I would say that to a measurable extent this is also true of racial relations; whatever I think of Obama’s presidency, it is simply easier for a white person to talk to a black person nowadays—and hopefully vice versa.
But to claim that these postmodern successes within Western society demonstrate that we can do without an anthropology that takes into account the necessity of firstness and deferral is a variation on the rather silly thought that if the West could just go on as it is and let the rest of the world catch up, we would arrive at the end of history with no new ways of thinking required. Although PC functions adequately as an etiquette in controlled environments where it would be churlish to emphasize difference, the Western intelligentsia’s current attempt to promote PC as a kind of new world religion, blaming inferior socio-economic performance on “imperialism,” “subalternation,” and the like, accepting resentment at face value as a sign of injustice rather than attempting to recycle it into achievement, is proving a formula for disaster.
Which is to say that we must face the problem of firstness in a way of which, I think, only GA is capable. Western society’s ability to resolve the problems of racial and gender inequality is best understood as a reflection of something like the same historical self-awareness that makes possible the thought of the originary hypothesis. That is, that Western, broadly speaking Judeo-Christian-Greek anthropological thought, stimulated by the Holocaust, has reached a level of lucidity that allows it to bifurcate into, on the one hand, the discovery of the key human problematic of internal violence, leading to Girard and GA, and on the other, a less intellectually but more politically ambitious victimary agenda that produced the end of racial discrimination and the triumphs of modern feminism.
This suggests that the prognosis for GA is best understood as the prognosis for humanistic thinking in general. The old humanism cannot get beyond the victimary; it has no mechanism for dealing with firstness because it had always taken it for granted until it realized it was unacceptable. The best it can do is Rawls’ theory of justice, whose “original position” moves metaphysics halfway to GA. GA offers a new anthropological basis for speculative thought that can substitute for, or to put it more modestly, establish a basis for Western metaphysics, just as the ostensive and imperative establish a basis for the declarative. Derridean deconstruction, the heart of the postmodern renewal/demolition of metaphysics, can be given a new, anthropological life through GA’s reappropriation of its key concept of deferral.
To return to the insight with which I began this Chronicle, if the rejection of GA can be understood as an extreme form of antisemitism, then it is by working through the notion of antisemitism that GA will make its presence felt—or in the contrary case, its failure will be a sign of the triumph of the “new” antisemitism.
Asking what the world can do for GA is resentment; asking what GA can do for the world is love. The originary hypothesis offers a model for understanding human history unresentfully. But what this means above all in the postmodern-victimary era is understanding the Holocaust unresentfully. That is not to say tolerantly of its horror, or seeking to balance the evils of the Axis by “equivalents” such as the destruction of Dresden or Hiroshima, but recognizing the Holocaust as an anthropological experiment that failed.
Our moral indignation at the Holocaust need not and indeed should not force us to claim a stance outside the sphere of human ethics in order to judge it. It is just this attitude of holy horror that has led to our current victimary obsession; once moral indignation becomes its own justification, its purview cannot be controlled. Millions are slaughtered in the Congo but no one is indignant; show a photo of a dead Palestinian child and voilà. The current trend of the victimary era suggests rather that the best way to defend the Jews against the Holocaust is not to show photographs of corpses and lament the horrors of Auschwitz, but to demonstrate that antisemitism is a bad although indestructable idea, that the idea of a world without Jews and the firstness that Jews represent is a contradiction in human terms. The Aryan utopia, had it been temporarily achieved, would have set the world on a path to further violence and regression because, even if we “bracket” the murder of the Jews (not to mention the Slavs and others necessary to provide the Aryans with Lebensraum), it was based on a false anthropology, a fundamental misunderstanding of the human. A truthful anthropology, I am suggesting, is one that accepts the role of the Jews as exemplars of “monotheistic” firstness. The Jews were not fated from all eternity to play this role, but history has given it to them, and attempting to efface history is not only horrible but effectively impossible. A world without Jews is conceivable in the abstract, but not as a historical reality, for given the Jews’ place in history this would mean a world without firstness and the resentment it provokes.
Our definition of love as the transcendence of resentment holds all the more for the exemplary resentment that is antisemitism: (Western) society as a whole is healthy when and only when it transcends antisemitism. (This suggests that philosemites, such as the evangelicals who arouse such scorn among the liberal Jewish intelligentsia, are particularly deserving of not only Jews’ but the world’s affection.) No doubt if antisemitism could disappear altogether, another resentment would be found to put in its place (as for example in Muslim countries devoid of Jews, Christians have come to play a scapegoat role), but antisemitism will disappear only when the memory of Jewish firstness disappears, and by then we will surely be at the end of history.
GA understands antisemitism as a temptation that must be rejected, a “passion” that the historically evolved human configuration inevitably arouses but just as inevitably requires us to resist, like the temptation in the originary event to attempt to possess the central object. Monotheism is not merely a theological “truth” but above all a human one, a reminder of human equality before God as a minimal theistic understanding of the necessarily communal nature of human reciprocity. The return to originary morality embodied in the énoncé of monotheism, which would seem to abolish the very problem of human firstness, suffers from the dissonance of its énonciation by the “chosen” of the One God. But we should see this paradoxical dissonance as the necessary, inherent structure of human symbolic/semiotic communication in general. Every ethical proposition is enunciated by a human being whose implicit claim that he stands outside the scene of representation is inevitably paradoxical. The hearers of any message have at least a residual reason to accuse its speaker of bad faith. Every human group can be accused of putting its self-interest above that of other groups and of the species as a whole. What distinguishes the Jews is that their particularism is defined by history’s first message of universalism. And what distinguishes GA is that it is the first way of thinking to offer a minimal hypothetical model of this universalism.
Our formulation of the originary event provides a model that explains the necessity of resentment as what must be transcended in love, and in so doing adds a supplementary chance for love to overcome resentment. If such a thing as humanistic thought has a chance of survival, then this understanding constitutes its primary vocation. I cannot predict that GA’s message will ever be received, but I can claim that it is this understanding of the human, whether enunciated by us or by others more astute at attracting public attention, that in the long term will save human love, and the species it protects and prolongs, from the triumph of resentment.