The following is the first half of my talk at this year’s joint annual meeting of the Generative Anthropology and Conference (GASC–our sixth) and the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) at the International Christian University in Tokyo, July 5-8.

Speaking as an American in Japan I am very much aware of the opening and closing moments of the great conflict between our two countries, the first of which took place in 1941, the year of my birth. It is not mere nostalgia that makes me recall WWII; nearly 70 years after its conclusion, we still live in its shadow. Or to put it another way, human life on Earth, until its hopefully indefinitely postponed extinction, will henceforth be defined by the deferral of WWIII.

Our postmodern predicament is bound up with the obsession with victims and victimage that has characterized the postwar era. The era’s accomplishments include the end of colonialism, apartheid, and segregation, the many triumphs of feminism and more recently of the non-heterosexual community. They also include the anthropological reflections of deconstruction and especially Girard’s “mimetic theory,” which Generative Anthropology attempts to bring together in a minimalist synthesis.

The historical explanation of this extraordinary phenomenon has always seemed to me to begin with the Holocaust. The Nazi race policies were so contrary to the most fundamental principles of human solidarity, as embodied in what I call the originary moral model of the reciprocal exchange of signs, that they provoked the reaction that in the future all policies that affirm, even tacitly, ontological difference among groups of human beings would be unacceptable. Michael Rothberg’s recent Multidirectional Memory (Stanford 2009), which insistently connects, in a French cultural context, the Holocaust to the “rival” victimizations of colonialism and slavery, only proves my point. For when Rothberg remarks on Aimé Césaire’s use of the termchoc en retour to explain the Holocaust as the “boomerang effect” of applying dehumanizing colonial practices within Europe itself, the crucial point is that Césaire is speaking after the warand that his energetic condemnation of racial-colonial policies, which he affirms to be as worthy of condemnation as the Holocaust, is in fact dependent on the prior reality of the Holocaust. Even if we stipulate (as was of course far from the case) that the Holocaust was “no more than” the translation to the internal relations of the “white race” of attitudes that had previously been all but taken for granted between the races, the fact remains that it was only after the Holocaust that garden-variety racism came to be considered as not simply slightly disreputable but wholly unacceptable, to the extent that today no accusation is more stigmatizing than that of racism.

But one cannot come to Japan without recalling the other apocalyptic manifestation of human violence that made WWII the last real war that humanity will be able to fight and survive with a functioning level of culture intact, or perhaps even survive at all. The Holocaust was arguably the most extreme example in history of man’s inhumanity to man. But what is yet more undeniable is that Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided examples of a technology that poses a far more direct threat to humanity’s survival. The gas chambers and killing fields of what Timothy Snyder calls the “Bloodlands” in Eastern Europe over a period of 12 years (1933-45) destroyed some 14 million civilians, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, and of course, Jewish. But these deaths are scarcely a blip on the chart of world population, which today exceeds 7 billion. No doubt this is even more true of the few hundred thousand deaths from the two atomic bombs. But within a few years of the war, the technology was already producing far more powerful weapons—H Bombs—and this progression can easily be extrapolated to the point where our entire species is in danger. In their current state, nuclear bombs and their fallout pose an undoubted threat to humanity as a whole. And their potential danger is increased by the fact that their use on the example of WWII would not require a monstrous ideologically based technology on the model of the Nazi death camps, merely the “normal” strategizing of war such as that which led the Allies to bomb German and Japanese cities with the aim of forcing surrender. Today as the West weighs the possibility that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, such questions obtrude on our consciousness.

These preliminary points having been made, in the context of this joint meeting it seemed to me appropriate to take René Girard’s reflections on the historical meaning of these phenomena as my points of departure. Girard discusses the Bomb in Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, which appeared in 1978. For a discussion of the Holocaust, we must wait until 1999, when in Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair, Girard explains the Holocaust as Hitler’s implementation of Nietzsche’s deadly combination of insight that our Judeo-Christian civilization is dominated by the concern for victims (le souci des victimes) with his aberrant judgment that this care exemplifies a decadent slave morality that must be eradicated at all cost.

The Bomb

The following citations are from Des choses cachées:


Quand les hommes parlent des moyens nouveaux de destruction, ils disent « la bombe » comme s’il n’y en avait qu’une et qu’elle appartenait à tout le monde et à personne, ou plutôt comme si le monde entier lui appartenait. Et elle apparaît en effet comme la Reine de ce monde. Elle trône au-dessus d’une foule immense de prêtres et de fidèles… (278)

[When men speak of the new means of destruction, they say “the Bomb” as if there were only one and that it belonged to everyone and to no one, or rather as if the whole world belonged to it. And it seems indeed to be the Queen of the World, reigning over an immense number of priests and believers…]

Ce qui rend nos conduites actuelles analogues aux conduites religieuses, ce n’est pas une terreur vraiment sacrée, c’est une crainte parfaitement lucide des périls qu’un duel nucléaire ferait courir à l’humanité. (280)

[What makes our present conduct analogous to religious practice is not really a sacred terror, it is a perfectly lucid fear of the dangers that a nuclear duel would pose to humanity.]

Dire que nous sommes en situation d’apocalypse objective, ce n’est nullement « prêcher la fin du monde », c’est dire que les hommes, pour la première fois, sont vraiment les maîtres de leur destin. La planète entière se retrouve, face à la violence, dans une situation comparable à celle des groupes humains les plus primitifs, à ceci près, cette fois, que c’est en connaissance de cause; nous n’avons plus de ressources sacrificielles et de malentendus sacrés pour détourner de nous cette violence. Nous accédons à un degré de conscience et de responsabilité jamais encore atteint par les hommes qui nous ont précédés. (283-4)

[To say that we are in an objectively apocalyptic situation is not at all to “preach the end of the world,” it is to claim that human beings, for the first time, are really masters of their own destiny. The whole planet finds itself, in the face of violence, in a comparable situation to that of the most primitive human groupings, with this difference, that this time, it is knowingly; we no longer have at our disposition sacrificial resources and sacred misunderstandings to turn this violence away from us. We have reached a degree of conscience and responsibility never before attained by our predecessors.]

Ce n’est pas la faute du texte évangélique, assurément, si la bonne nouvelle dont nous nous croyions à jamais débarrassés revient vers nous dans un contexte aussi redoutable. C’est nous qui l’avons voulu ; ce contexte, c’est nous qui l’avons élaboré. Nous voulions que notre demeure nous soit laissée, eh bien, elle nous est laissée (Lc 13, 35). (285)

[It is not the fault of the Gospel text, certainly, if the good news that we thought we had rid ourselves of forever returns upon us in such a formidable context. It is we who wanted it; this context, it is we who created it. We wanted our house to be left unto us, well then, it is left unto us. (Luke 13:35).]


Thus the violence of the Bomb confronts us with the drastic choice either to learn to love each other or die. Girard’s notion of modernity is that Jesus’ revelation works through history by exposing the inefficacity of sacrificial scapegoating, which for him yet remains, in the absence of any consideration of other modes of human exchange, earthbound humanity’s sole means for deferring violence. The revelation of the Bomb is that we can no longer “make peace” by expelling violence from our community. Our former sacrificial means for removing violence from our midst can no longer be used because our “midst” is no longer protected from them, and the destruction of our enemies will also be our own. Henceforth we can only perform humanity’s most fundamental operation and defer violence. At least until some glitch occurs, the existence of these “ultimate weapons” guarantees the absence of war. But as Jean-Pierre Dupuy has been demonstrating, the hairtrigger logic of MAD is fraught with paradox; the most rigorous guarantee of deterrence, and therefore of non-violence, is the most inexorable threat of retaliatory violence.

This is a revelation not unique to Girard, and whose paradoxical nature has been expressed in various forms: in Dr Strangelove, to give an early example. As an application of what we might call “Christian anthropology” to the modern world, it is in effect a reductio ad absurdum. By demonstrating that the existence of the Bomb imposes the same decision between peace and violence as Jesus’ revelation, it can be said to “fulfill” that revelation, but also to render it null and void. Jesus’ revelation of the violent arbitrariness of the old sacred on which the world depended is no longer necessary, since the Bomb is the Aufhebung of this arbitrariness: one “arbitrary” use of it, rather than killing one to save the others, or at least, killing the enemy to save “ourselves,” would lead to the universal annihilation of our species.

Thus the Bomb returns us to our originary state, in which we choose between mutual annihilation and the deferral of violence. But the option of sacrificial religion is no longer operative, for the relation between the members of the human community is the inverse of that which prevailed at the birth of humanity. According to the originary hypothesis, the human, that is, language, religion, and representation generally, emerged because no “Alpha” individual could dominate the entire group once mimetic desire had reached the level where the entire group felt “equally” entitled to the central object. That is, the most powerful is brought to the level of equality by the community as a whole, who all become his peers, since the Alpha’s assertion of superiority cannot be sustained against all the others. But if each member of the group possesses a weapon powerful enough to destroy the entire group, the cohesion of the others against each no longer conduces to the unity of the group as a whole. Each is in principle as powerful as all the others together, equally capable of bringing about “the end of the world”; each must consequently exercise restraint on his own.

To act in Girard’s universe is to cast the first stone, a phrase that, as Girard rightly points out, has become a universally accepted formula for deferring violence by focusing on its component of firstness. Jesus’ insight is to prevent this from happening, as Girard demonstrates in his very fine analysis of the “woman taken in adultery” passage in John. The Bomb pushes this reasoning to its limit by making the first act of violence not merely the beginning of a sacrificial expulsion, but potentially of mutual destruction. Thus the world of the Bomb leads to wars less and less “total” like WWII, in which survival depends on maintaining as a conscious choice not to use the ultimate weapons, not to act by “instinct,” not to engage in the violence-discharging firstness of the one who casts the first stone. No first use is not accidentally a variant of this turn of phrase.

The originary dynamic was biased toward a diminution of violence in that the community as a whole could enforce its will on any violent individual and channel the mimetic violence of all toward a common goal, whether it be scapegoating or what seems to me more realistic, the equal sharing of meat. The Bomb scenario, in contrast, gives an advantage to whichever member of the group can intimidate the others most credibly with a threat of using the ultimate weapon, that is, the group that best appears able to accept suicide. In the current world, I think we all know for which societies this is true. This suggests that allowing Iran and its rhetorically—at least—apocalyptic leadership to obtain nuclear arms may be a “tipping point.” Let us hope that this does not occur.


Next week’s Chronicle will include the material on the Holocaust and the conclusion of the talk.