Firstness creates a double bind, or pragmatic paradox, more than it creates any “idea.” If, as Eric Gans argued again most recently in Chronicle 420, to persecute Jesus is to worship him, likewise to try and destroy the Jews is to affirm their unique role in history and the power of their God over the more provisional one you worship. Even further back, to resent, plot and organize against the tyrant who has usurped the gift economy, making it a permanently asymmetrical one with him facing off against the community, is to acknowledge the rules of the game he has established, and the arbitrariness of one’s own rule in the event of success. There is no sign without a signer, and the one who has signed first, as Gans argues in #420, appears to originate the system of signification and therefore to stand outside of it. This apparent self-exemption from the rule one has instituted is the source of the resentment towards firstness, and complaints about the various advantages the first gains by getting in on the ground floor are after-the-fact rationalizations.
But if Judaic monotheism re-establishes “contact” with the originary scene, it does so with significant remainder. Judaism is post-imperial—indeed, obsessed with empires, with which it was surrounded throughout its emergence and development, and which it even tried to imitate with its own Davidic regime—and therefore what I would call “anti-haughty.” The Jewish God is the king of kings, the founder of a permanent world empire of which temporal empires are mere shadows. This configuration establishes a powerful double bind, because to be against the Jewish God is to be in favor of some form of earthly permanence, and as we know, all is vanity. The Jews even interpreted the destruction of their own little empire and its subsequent dispersal as proof of a historical process that would end with the final restoration of God’s kingdom.
But the Jewish understanding of God needs a lot of work, especially as the imperial references and anti-imperial resonances of that understanding fade in urgency and intelligibility. Christians may claim to have done a lot of this work, and certainly embedding God in an, and, by implication, any, individual—an individual one chooses to treat brutally or charitably—is an improvement. At the same time, Christianity, in claiming its inheritance from Rome, reincorporated a good deal of the ancient cosmological and imperial thinking and social ordering: that is, priority is given to those whose social position corresponds to hierarchies in “reality” (they are “higher” in some sense) and to thinking that starts from what is “highest” and deduces from there everything “lower.”
This form of firstness enabled the enormous historical shift from the primitive hunter and gatherer villages to the city and then empire, and it made possible the organization and therefore leveling and homogenization of masses of humanity in subordination to a single, centrally determined and directed purpose or directionality. This form of firstness represents history as a stage upon which ever larger and more inclusive contests are held, and in which the winners (the survivors) push history forward and the losers disappear from the scene. The fact that we still have states, and that metaphysical thinking is still the dominant mode of everyday thought (a proposition corresponding to reality—to some winner on a public stage—is still taken to be the decisive argumentative move) means that this form of firstness has hardly budged: monotheism represents a constant critique of what is essentially a permanently asymmetrical gift economy (the state gives us life and we are ready to sacrifice our relatively paltry existences to the state); a critique that sometimes validates one sacrifice over another and at other times issues in “prophetic” attacks on ruling or dominant class brutalities or indifference that is every bit as ineffective as those of the ancient Hebrew prophets. The anti-haughty forms of firstness long ago reached an impasse.
Metaphysics—the old Western order organized around classical thought, private property, Augustinian/Aquinian Christianity and individual liberty and conscience—would be preferable to the coming capitulation orchestrated by the oikophobes to Islam envisaged in Chronicle 416, but while metaphysics remains the common sense, it is too riven by victimary and, even more, democratic and romantic subversions, to provide any “immunity” to decline and collapse. To frame the problem in terms of Chronicle 420, the future of acknowledgement of firstness, with which, I agree, the prospects of public recognition for GA as the inquiry into firstness are bound up, depends upon some of us stepping outside of imperial, or what Heidegger called onto-theo-logical, modes of thought. The highest and most humane mode of imperial thought, what Eric Voegelin called “ecumenism,” could be defined as any assumption of some universal center of which we are all spectators and that validates us all as possible actors.
A good way of clarifying what I see as the need, not to transcend but to implode what I am calling ecumenical/imperial thinking is through a discussion of the concept of “rights.” I don’t think there is any conversation about public affairs in today’s world that could be conducted without the assumption that we are endowed by rights that render us all scenelessly equal in relation to that source of endowment—whether the source of rights is God, the state, the international community; whether the subject of rights is the individual, the group, the nation, or the religion; whether the object of the right is speech, faith, property, food, respect, or health care—it has simply become impossible to speak outside of these terms. The notion of rights is intrinsic to any formally articulated, rule-governed regime—rights are embedded in the rules of the game, once we have agreed that we are all playing the same game. And constitutive of civilization is what Hannah Arendt referred to as the “right to have rights,” a concept she used in response to the antinomies of civil rights within nation-states which, with the emergence of post-civil regimes like Nazism and Communism, created nation-sized, even empire-sized rightless populations.
In imperial/ecumenical thought, rights-talk heads towards the infinite—everyone wants their version of rights to trump all the others, and to cover, in advance, all exigencies. It’s no coincidence that the Left is winning this game, because they are ready to implement a right and its enforceable remedy for every conceivable discomfort of civilized life. In “exodic,” or “marginalist” civil thinking, rights-talk heads toward the infinitesimal: your rights are embedded in the scene you share with others, and is guaranteed only by the reciprocal guarantees each offers in word and action. Rights would be, in that case, “auto-probatory,” to recover Gans’s reference to the Mosaic revelation in Science and Faith: for example, if we are having a conversation, I have a “right” to respond to the dismissive implications of some throwaway remark you made; if you ignore my response, it’s not so much that you have violated my rights as that we are no longer having a conversation (we might be doing something else now—the connection need not have been cut off completely—with a different entailment of reciprocal rights). To be on a scene is to share rights with others; to be without rights is to be sceneless; by the same token, sceneless thinking obliterates rights.
The rights of firstness would then be firmly embedded in each social interaction. Those rights would be manifested in the inevitable resentment towards firstness—in the way in which, with a regularity equal to that of the laws of gravity (but as impossible to point to definitively as the velocity of a particle when measuring its mass), any social interaction turns into clustering around some provisional center, with everyone busily constructing a scene through imitations, appropriations, repetitions, reversals, and so on. What instigates any social action is some double bind or pragmatic paradox or, to put it differently, some familiar chunk of signifying material placed in an unfamiliar setting, whether by mistake or canny scenic intuition (I myself barely distinguish the two, but that’s my business). One person says or does something new, which gets read as not too new, and everyone around scrambles to revise themselves accordingly. Each is compelled to assert his rights to the new scene, thereby creating that scene.
The move toward the infinitesimal seems to me the way to generate such pragmatic paradoxes: insofar as we find ourselves on a scene impaired by anti-Semitism, we might start with a revised version of the Jewish God in the traveling and polymorphous textuality bequeathed to us by exilic Judaism, with its binaries of law and story, oral and written law. This infinitely generative divinity articulates the universality of firstness with its necessary idiosyncrasy: the mystery of a particular sign that catches on having started here or there and not elsewhere. (What turns, for example, mere escape from empire into the gift of a God before whom empires tremble?)
What if, for example, as Brian Rotman (Becoming Beside Ourselves) argues, Jewish monotheism is inseparable from the emergence of alphabetic writing, as the written “I,” the “toneless voice” abstracted from the entire presence of a speaker, “[s]hort of invoking a plurality of indistinguishable and interchangeable speakers (like identical atoms or mathematical units) . . . can only invoke a singularity, a one-and-only, self-identical entity comparable to nothing outside itself; a monobeing who is not merely one of a kind, but is its kind” (122)? Perhaps resentments of Jewish firstness have something to do with the Jewish relation to textuality, and in particular, the mode of textuality that has become dominant in the modern world. Moreover, the origins of writing are deeply intertwined with the origins of the market and empire, as are the origins of Judaism and anti-Semitism.
A great deal of victimary resentment might be implicated in the resentment towards alphabetical writing, where a lot of contemporary Rousseauianism has situated itself—those virtues PC norms demand we attribute to the beneficiaries of affirmative action, for example, tend to be “oral” virtues of “warmth,” “spontaneity,” “solidarity,” “extended family,” and so on—as opposed to the rigors of print culture (bureaucracy, high standards, conformity, norms, etc.). The argument of Rotman’s book is that the media regime governed by print culture is well on its way to being transformed into a much more mixed one—I would sum it up as a transition from the tension between appearance and invisibility (God, Mind and other realities hidden behind appearances) to the tension between virtuality and idiosyncrasy (a new iconism in which we become signs of ourselves, individually and collectively). Interestingly, one might argue (Rotman doesn’t) that the “intense and lasting alphabetic fetishism within Jewish mystical and philosophical thought” (123) has once again given Jews a head start within this new mode of multi-literacy, since that “fetishism” has accustomed Jews to look both at and through the letters “containing” the meanings of the text.
I would follow Gans’s argument for GA as a “model for understanding human history unresentfully” by producing a model of GA as a model for the invention of sentences—sentences that others have to repeat, revise and distort, and that turn out to have been more spoken through one than by one. Each of us is what we will have been taken to be by anyone else. For that matter, each of us is whatever we will have been given to be by anyone else—the self being a construct of a gift economy. To follow Rotman into the new media networks, the new systems of signs, the googlization of the world (this very series of names is characteristic of the quasi-apocalyptic rhetoric associated once with postmodernism and now with invocations of some technological singularity) as a series of maps within maps, maps mapping maps, is a new site for the contest between Judaic and other (Greek but not only) founding sentences.
Yes, anti-Semitism is a bad but indestructible idea, a social experiment doomed to be repeated (or, at least, the attempt will always be made, the temptation always there); and, yes, the originary hypothesis calls our attention to that bad indestructibility, and the reverence for firstness it abjures; and, therefore, our efforts at calling attention to the originary hypothesis have their justification and high stakes, if they ever needed it. But GA, then, might be in the middle of this struggle, tied in to defending actual Jews and Judaism and the never yet perfectly realized paradox of the “I AM.” The founding paradoxical maxims of Greek rationalism (as Rotman notes, that other product of alphabetical literacy), like “know thyself” and “I know that I am ignorant” make self-reflection the center of thinking. But you can’t even say “I am/will be that/what I am/will be” without naming yourself God—it can’t be appropriated as the foundation for the self, like the Greek sentences. If you write it, you can simply record it without actually saying it; and if you must speak it, you must speak it as if writing it, referring it to some infinite Other, at some undiscloseable location. It’s a sentence that comes to us rather than from us, and in its emptiness calls for permutations rather than clarification.
The “I AM,” then, is an infinite resource of firstness, of paradoxical maxims for exodic enterprises. An originary version of the name might be “I am the deferral of the violence upon which you are presently embarked.” Someone would have to say this to the imminent violator, or he would have to imagine it coming from elsewhere—some he or she or it or there or then that is the deferral, the stumbling block on the way to whatever unforgivable violence. Rather than self-reflection, an inquiry into one’s violent propensities, or the epistemological failure that has led one away from the Good, you are placed on a scene within which the I AM has erupted in the form of the firstness that you become by listening to it. Instead of attacking the object and tearing the fabric of the reality held together by that object, you look at how it looks—looking at how it looks is an esthetic appreciation of something exceeding your grasp as well as a letting it look back at you in its own distinctive way. A position within GA (certainly not the whole or even, necessarily, a very large part) might be the Jew as the one who looks at how it looks.