Since the most obvious difference between René Girard and myself in the religious sphere is that he is Christian and I am Jewish, I have often thought that this contrast might be a privileged way of minimally describing the difference between our respective anthropologies. Girard’s anthropology is demonstrably Christian. This is true both on the surface, where he explicitly presents Jesus’ revelation as incapable of a naturalistic/anthropological explanation, and in depth, where his anthropology of violence calls for a specifically Christian mode of non-violence as its solution. But in what sense is GA, which takes no obvious religious stance, “Jewish”? Should it be seen despite appearances as a redefinition of the essence of Judaism, as various Jewish thinkers through the ages, say, Spinoza or Hermann Cohen, have attempted?
Whatever GA has to say about Judaism, a fundamental claim of “Jewishness” can be made only in reference to the originary scene. Where we situate this “Jewish” element will then constitute an “ultimate” statement about the limits or parameters of anthropological discourse in general. Which is not to say that such a statement would suggest, against the very principles of GA, that the originary hypothesis derives from a more general religious understanding. The point should rather be to show that the fundamental “Jewish” insight gives a different, and hopefully sharper, clearer picture of human origin than its “Christian” variant.
But the historical derivation of GA from Girard’s original insight should not for all that be consigned to the realm of accident. Indeed, Judaism and Christianity have evolved in tandem for two millennia. Thus it would be preferable to understand GA as a return to the Jewish origins of Girard’s Christian thought, a return accessible only from within the revelatory space of this thought itself. Only by pushing the original Jewish insight into the originary scene to the paradoxical (Christian) point where God becomes capable of human incarnation, which is to say, loses nothing of his essence by living as a mortal, can we then return to the simpler Jewish separation between man and God. No doubt the Trinity embodies both these conceptions of God, as well as their mediation through the “spirit,” which is in effect language/representation. But a return to the Jewish perspective implies a rejection of the Christian trinity, or rather its transcendence within the sphere of Jewish thought. It is as though the intellectual experience of the Christian Incarnation constituted a demonstration that, only once historically instantiated, could be treated as ontologically unnecessary. Once Jesus demonstrates (for the world, not necessarily for himself) that one can understand the human as if it were the divine (in Girard’s terms, as a divinity devoid of sacrificial or “supernatural” violence, hence less powerful in worldly terms than a human being), then one need not project the human back into the divinity supposed to be its creator. John’s in the beginning was the Word would be returned to its obvious anthropological meaning: with the first word, the human emerged, rather than:God had the Son with him from the beginning. Or in even simpler terms, what we return to is the undecidability of God creates Man/Man creates God.
But is this “Jewish”? In the US today, reviews such as Commentary on the right and the Forward on the left express anxiety concerning the “secular” Jewish population, composed of those like me who may strongly identify as Jewish, but do not observe Jewish ritual or attend synagogue services, often not even once a year. Yes, these people are Jews, but what happens when they intermarry? What about their children? In my own case, these questions do not arise, but it seems that the self-identifying and above all self-perpetuating Jewish community is increasingly composed of the orthodox, often “ultra-,” who tend to have many children and to live lives dominated by Jewish law and custom. If this is a harbinger of the future, it may be that “secular Jews” will largely disappear, and their importance qua Jews in our intellectual life will die out. For the moment, however, I think the secular-Jewish perspective that gave us Marx, Freud, Einstein, and so many others still has a way to go.
In this perspective, the originary hypothesis in its minimality should provide a test case of the minimal core of Judaism, particularly in contrast with Girard’s earlier and simpler version of the hypothesis. In a crucial sense, Girard’s hypothesis depends on a Christian act of faith to guide the process of “hominization” that in GA is accomplished by the emission of the sign: the Christ-emissary victim as the Word. What then in Judaism in its most minimal form has the Christ-Word taken the place of? Or should we not rather say: what does a return from Christianity to Judaism leave of the Christ-Word?
The foregoing suggests that we must understand the originary hypothesis as itself a return from the Christian identification of Christ with the Word to a Jewish notion of the Word as an emanation of the One God who is Other than man. The “secularized” generation of the sign from the aborted gesture of appropriation attributes to the object/referent of the sign the repelling force that prevents the gesture from seeking “horizontal” appetitive fulfillment. Which is to say that the victimary role of the Word whose light goes unrecognized corresponds in the “Jewish” sequence to an assertion of the power of the sacred referent of the sign, the priority/secondarity of which with respect to its designation is subject to the familiar paradox of signification (the sign as undecidably making significant or recognizing significance). This sense of the power of God is precisely what Jesus as the unrecognized Word denies.
If we take the originary event as occurring “before Christianity,” that is, before the victimary truth of the sign has been revealed, it will be seen as simply an emanation of the power of the sacred center, of the “Old-Testament” God. We now understand more clearly in what sense GA is both “Jewish” and “post-Christian.” For GA recognizes the inherent powerlessness of the central object, which derives its power from the common desires that impinge on it. At the same time, the originary hypothesis does not understand the central object as a (human) victim, as does the Girardian emissary-victim scenario. The central object as a source of nourishment is not the enemy of the group, although it arouses resentment for its inaccessibility. No doubt under the man-creates-God half of the paradox, the power of the center derives entirely from surrounding human desires. But from the standpoint of a post-victimary God-creates-man, the center’s power comes from its ability to organize and focus on itself the disparate desires of the nascent community. As a result of this focusing, the central object becomes the (appetitive) object of the unanimous appropriative activity of the sparagmos.
But in order that human culture be born in the originary event, the center-as-such must survive the sparagmos. The center that remains as the residual signified of the sign that is born in the event is the object of originary resentment as well as veneration for the power that resides in it, and which is manifested by the very use of the sign. That is, the sign is not “rejected” but embodies the power of the community, lacking which language/representation could not maintain itself. To recall the originary sign in the absence of the originary configuration itself is to tap the energy that first brought the community together, and therefore to deal with a superior power, not a victim. The “post-Christian” element of this perspective reminds us, however, that this power is only available as a result of the appetitive satisfaction given to the group in the sparagmos. God, in other words, is powerful because he nourishes the community that worships him, both in the essential material sense that permits it to survive and in the equally essential organizational sense, in which the ability to think of the sign and the unanimity of desire it represents provides an assurance of security, in contrast with the henceforth insecure pre-human pecking-order hierarchy, in that it can always be accessed through the sign on one’s internal scene of representation.
The Girardian scapegoat is not a source of nourishment. Even if we leave aside the question of the elaboration of a formal system of signs, the idea of a victim-sign who is not recognized by those in whose universe it appears is comprehensible only in the context of supernatural agency. The powerless God whom Girard presents as the zero degree of religion is in reality inconceivable as an originary being, just as the idea of a sign that cannot be understood is a contradiction in terms (and not simply a “paradox”). In the Girardian universe, the murdered victim whose cadaver unites the community is, let us say, commemorated through a relic. Similar events reinforce the emissary formula of assimilating the (maleficent) cause of disorder to its (beneficent) resolution. “The” sign is never a sign of language, and it can therefore always be “misunderstood,” in the sense that its efficacy is not guaranteed and the scapegoating operation must be repeated. It is in effect this operation and the “habit” it creates of replacing or at least supplementing the old relics with new that takes the place of a linguistic sign in Girardian anthropology. In such a case, unlike the repetition of a linguistic sign, which reinforces its meaning, the need for repetition of the mechanism reveals the inadequacy of the previous memory. It is unclear how a stable system of signs can be established under such conditions. Or rather, it is clear enough that the only solution is the creation of a symbolic sign-system that does away with the material connection between the relic and the cadaver; what is unclear is how and when this system is deemed to emerge.
A similar contrast obtains on the more substantive level of the “moral model” established in the originary configuration surrounding the central figure. In the Girardian hypothesis, this configuration is that of a lynch mob, where the victim in the center is for the others, until the murder itself has been accomplished, an unambiguous object of aggression who offers no chance of appetitive satisfaction, since the victim is not being sought for food but in order to end whatever crisis he is blamed for having incited. Thus the moral equality among the members of the community is purchased only at the price of the all-against-one, the victimary expulsion of one of the group. The Girardian community is incapable of desiring outside itself; it has no relationship to “nature.” The originary existence of Jesus-as-victim as the Word is made to imply that what defines the Word is its expulsion. In order to create the “other world” of the sacred/culture/representation, the sign is not generated through deferral in a “vertical” relation to reality, but simply expelled “elsewhere” in reason of its difference. It is through this violent expulsion that the relative difference between the victim and the others is made absolute, but in this state of pure otherness, the sacred provides no foundation for a system of representations that will come to articulate a hierarchy of worldly significance, as does the appetitive object at the center of the originary hypothesis. For Girard, the source of transfiguration is murderous violence, absolute difference as the destruction of all relative differences, rather than the difference-preserving deferral that in the originary hypothesis “converts” the gesture of appropriation into a sign.
Here again we may ask what is specifically “Jewish” about deriving morality from the originary exchange of the sign. Christian morality, as formulated in the Sermon on the Mount, is deliberately anti-sacrificial, non-violent to the point of asymmetry (“turn the other cheek”). It is based on the principle that if, as in the stoning of the adulteress in John, each individual refuses violence, there will be no “first” violence. This is as though the originary deferral of appropriation were extended to all situations of life, that is, as if life in general were lived in the configuration of the originary scene, with sacred center and periphery—as in the ritual configuration of the stoning. Here again the “Jewish” understanding embodied in the originary hypothesis can be conceived only after this Christian universalization, lacking which we would have no fundamental idea of the scene as such as the locus of a deferral of violence. Where the Girardian “moral model” is one of non-violence opposing violence, that of GA is symmetrical, reciprocal, not responding by non-violence to violence but maintaining the threat of violent retaliation as a deterrent against violence. The aborted gesture of appropriation becomes the default mimetic model because it alone promotes the generalized deferral of violence, whereas the simple renunciation of violence in the face of a violent gesture would on the contrary, as in a typical lynching scene, encourage it. Renunciation functions to prevent violence, as in the scene in John, only when the situation is already a ritualized one of deferred violence whose cessation can be shown to depend on an act of firstness, casting the first stone.
A final point concerning an essential “Jewish” component of GA: the thought of Jacques Derrida, whose notion of différance is crucial to the generative theory of the sign. Should we consider Derrida a “Jewish” thinker even in the early, more strictly philosophical phase of his work? I think the categories set out above can provide an (admittedly schematic) place for Derrida’s thought that confirms my sense that without Girard, GA could not have (re)established a form of “Jewish” thought of human origin. Derrida’s is an auto-critique of metaphysics along lines well-established since the Enlightenment. Which is to say that its position on the Jewish-Christian axis is subordinate to its foundation in a culture for which language is not problematic in itself. Since the critique of metaphysics is ultimately a critique of (the originarity of) propositional language, it is ultimately paradoxical, but its paradox remains logical, never opening on the anthropological.
Derrida, more sharply aware of the paradox than his predecessors, saw that declarative language, which Judaism derives from “I am that I am,” whereas Greek metaphysics derives it from Truth, which is to say, from itself, is used in such a way as to refer back to what I would call its origin, more specifically, the arbitrary selection of a sacred being out of a world of profane beings. Yet taking the existence of language for granted allows Derrida a lack of rigor in getting to the bottom of the model he is creating. Let us stipulate that we choose “red” from a paradigm that includes “blue,” “green,” etc., so that we can’t really say that red is present to us. But before any such elaborate paradigm could be created, the early user of language had to face the simpler but more momentous decision as to whether the phenomenon he was referring to was worthy of being represented at all; the basic paradigm of 1 or 0, sacred or profane, significant or insignificant. Or if you like, “red” or … not green or blue but just … who cares? After all, we see lots of red objects every day, but very few of them elicit from us an utterance that designates them as “red.”
Is Derrida’s, nonetheless, a kind of “Jewish” critique of metaphysics? Pushed to the limit, it tells us that language is an act of faith, as I was happy to see in a late text discussed in Chronicle 340 (“Frère Jacques”). Derrida himself was too much of a snob to take an interest in GA, so we’ll never know what he might have thought of GA’s use of the “Derridean” term deferral, the English translation of différance. It is a bit artificial to divide between the Jewish and the Christian the metaphysical realm, which belongs to neither, but at the very least we can say that the powerful intuition that gave Derrida the idea of deferral as a delay of decision, and ultimately a moment of residence in Sartre’s néant—where I have always found the clearest still-metaphysical statement of the specificity of the human representational consciousness—has its origin in the deferral of violence. A Christian moment, then? But no, since for Derrida the deferral of the violent, arbitrary choice only makes it all the more violent and arbitrary, with the consequence that language always involves for him a supplement of violence. Once one has uttered “red,” one pretends that “red” was present all along, one forgets, suppresses the deferral in which it was conceived, and insists, with penalties for those who affirm the contrary, that “red” is a natural condition, not the result of a Sartrean exercise of freedom. And this central violence, we well know, has partie liée with the Old-Testament God of violent decisions, starting with the choice to separate the Earth from the Heavens.
Like all critics of metaphysics, particularly those after Auschwitz, Derrida sees violence everywhere, but above all in language. Girard, so much less sophisticated, and who has so little to say about language, understands like the hedgehog One Big Thing, which is that violence is what human culture is organized to contain—to use, no doubt, but against itself (“Satan casting out Satan”) in order to diminish it, not to revel in it. And for this intuition, Girard finds support in the assimilation of the Son to the Word, who shone in the darkness and was not recognized. Only after this fundamental Girardian intuition does it become easy to understand the real sense of la différance: as the “Jewish” version of the Word-as-peacemaker, whose selection does not require a prior rejection, merely a temporary renunciation of “instinctual” appetitive activity under the sacred authority of the center, whose priority with respect to the human group that surrounds it remains, from an anthropological perspective, always undetermined—God creates man/man creates god.
If people ask you why GA remains virtually unknown, perhaps the simplest explanation is not that it is too difficult to understand, but that it permits a level of nuanced discourse about the human that puts the others to shame, and must consequently be rejected, like the light that shone in the darkness long ago.