One of the insistent themes of deconstruction in its earliest phase was the medium of communication. Although the paradoxically presented “non-concept” of différance that defined écriture was in effect medium-independent, Derrida emphasized that in contrast to the metaphysical emphasis on “natural” speech (and the consequence, which metaphysics and even its critics left unmentioned, that language as such is taken for granted as the “natural” medium of thought: cogito, ergo…), language is typified rather by the technical, late, “distant” phenomenon of writing. This early emphasis on the techné of communication has vastly proliferated in the age of the “digital humanities,” where traditional literary and artistic genres are supplemented and mashed up with new ones. To quote the collective volume Digital_Humanities (Anne Burdick et al, MIT Press, 2012, p. 24),
The digital environment offers expanded possibilities for exploring multiple approaches to what constitutes knowledge and what methods qualify as valid for its production. This implies that the 8-page essay and the 25-page research paper will have to make room for the game design, the multi-player narrative, the video mash-up, the online exhibit and other new forms and formats as pedagogical exercises.
I will attempt to deal with this aspect of “media” in a future Chronicle, recognizing that there is no a priori means to demonstrate that any given media genre cannot be made to convey cognitive content. Indeed, the questioning of the traditional modes of such content is very much a part of the “digital humanities,” both as academic propaganda and as esthetic reality.
But what interests me here is a much simpler question for which genres are of interest only insofar as they are instruments of (mass) communication. My tentative thesis is that the kind of thought that seems to me (us?) necessary in these times of victimary hysteria and resentful fanaticism is just the kind (ours?) that is incompatible with the current organization of the media in the public sphere, and that this fact, whether “divine plan,” “ruse of reason,” effect of chance or internally deducible necessity, is one to which we as the custodians of GA, which includes the heritage of Girard but also of deconstruction detached from its political biases, need to devote some serious reflection.
It adds weight to this assessment to include “mimetic theory” in its purview. No doubt the Girardian world has many advantages over GA, notably the financing of Peter Thiel’s Imitatio, and Girard’s own well-deserved prestige. But we may set aside these advantages for the moment, given that the intellectual media pay very little attention to “mimetic theory” either—and much of the attention it does receive reflects less its strengths as a fundamental anthropology than its ambivalent attitude toward the “victim” that allows many (most?) Girardians to take the victimary side in current political debates. Yet this complicity has not succeeded in making the theory of the scapegoat an important part of today’s intellectual conversation.
We should be cautious about taking local political events for revelatory signs of secular truths. But let us indulge in a bit of speculation in this vein. The 2014 election showed that at every level but the presidential, the American public is more hostile to the victimary ideology of the Left than at any time since before the Depression, over 80 years ago. So decisive a political victory should permit the victors to make clear the real point of contention between the two sides. This would seem to suggest that the time is ripe for the open denunciation of this ideology, not as “PC” or as “faith in big government” but as victimary thinking, indeed as victimocracy. Yet not only have the president and his party been able to blithely dismiss the Republican victory as inconsequential (“had a good night”), but the Republicans/conservatives themselves, those who presumably defend firstness as a necessary complement to equality, have been unable to articulate an alternative strategy to the Democrats’: is raising the minimum wage acceptable within limits? should Obama’s amnesty-like actions on immigration be fought or merely complained about? can such things as the disintegration of “the Black family” that Moynihan complained of fifty years ago or so even be mentioned in relation to questions of crime and policing? should we send troops to the Middle East in more than symbolic numbers? is there a viable less bureaucratic alternative to Obamacare? It’s not even clear how strong among Republicans is the will to rebuild the military whose budget and manpower Obama has drastically cut back.
The only forthright opposition to the victimary as such is that of a courageous polemical fringe, exemplified by such figures as Mark Steyn and David Horowitz in FrontPage Magazine, with no visible influence on “respectable” conservative politicians. And these writers are concerned rather to denounce the victimocracy than examine its historical roots. David P. Goldman (“Spengler”) is the pundit that comes closest to a long-term analytic perspective, and he clearly has a fine grasp of world history. But there is no place in the media for a critique of the victimary from a radically reconceived anthropological standpoint such as Girard and GA represent.
When in a recent Chronicle (474) entitled “Blaming the Victim” I reproached conservatives for not speaking of the victimary, one of my readers quite correctly pointed out that they don’t do this for fear of being accused of… blaming the victim. Which is but another way of saying that victimary thought is now accepted as incontrovertible ethical truth, ever expanding to new frontiers (micro-aggression, transgenderism), no deviation from which in its current state can be tolerated. Thus victimary policies can be criticized only tactically, which is often to say, hypocritically, hypocrisy being (dixit La Rochefoucauld) the homage that vice pays to virtue. The Right, in a word, accepts the Left’s monopoly of virtue. Which helps explain why since its rout in the election, its Left’s insufferable tone of moral superiority, from Obama and the (New) New Republic on down, has only increased. One hears the campus-created term “PC” less often in recent years: the Left’s values have been assimilated to good manners, the basic conventions of human interaction.
In all my discussions of victimary thinking, I have emphasized the ethical trauma of the Holocaust as the key event of WWII; by providing a model of “absolute” oppression in which cruelty to victims is replaced by the industrial processing of “vermin,” it cast discredit on all de jure systems of discriminatory classification, from colonialism to racial segregation in the South, and inspired movements to end differential attitudes accepted since time immemorial in the domain of sexual identity and orientation. This is all familiar to us; but it all depends on another consequence of WWII that I have not previously mentioned because it was taken for granted, and has only become part of our consciousness now that its effects are ending: that of the postwar Pax Americana and its stabilizing effect on the world order. This effect, I would argue, was perturbed only secondarily by the Cold War, however frightening it appeared at the time.
It has often been noted with irony and/or regret that since its victory in WWII, the United States has not felt the need to fight to the end and win a single major war, neither in Korea (stalemate), Vietnam (loss), Iraq or Afghanistan (no need for explanations here). At best we drove Saddam out of Kuwait and Milosevic out of Kosovo, and intervened with modest results in small countries in the Western Hemisphere (Granada, Panama, Haiti…) The principal conclusion that we drew from WWII was that, by necessity, it would be the last World War. Our Cold War fears of WWIII were real but abstract; the apocalyptic Dr Strangelove, for example, is in retrospect a strangely benign satire, far less vicious than the diatribes commonly heard on campuses and elsewhere against those who defended the West’s position in Vietnam and later, in Iraq.
What I am suggesting is that the victimary “time of troubles” that began with the Vietnam war protests in the 1960s and that has for better or worse demolished our early postwar sense of normality (cf Charles Murray’s Losing Ground), has relied, in its ever-more-radical effort to expiate Western civilization’s firstness by denying its legitimacy, on a foundational confidence that this dominant status could not truly be threatened. This is the attitude of the spoiled child who throws a tantrum knowing that its parents will never punish it severely for its naughtiness. Indeed, for anyone who has observed for the past few decades child-rearing among the educated classes, the parallel between individual and collective experience is obvious, even to the demographic consequences in both cases of sacrificing future generations to present satisfactions, whether those of the West’s overall condition of (relative) peace and prosperity, or of the bourgeois family’s concentrated attentions on its one or two “boutique children.”
Victory over the Axis in the last possible total war had the exhilarating feel of entering the kingdom of heaven, and the Cold War with its crises and local wars never really put the feeling in doubt. Of course the Cold War’s peaceful and victorious conclusion could not have been predicted, and until the middle of the Reagan administration most people assumed it would go on indefinitely as “peaceful competition” with a few minor conflicts in the margins, but that only goes to show how stabilizing it was and how marginally it threatened the Pax Americana. Nor should we forget that Soviet Marxism was a wholly Western mode of thought that shared with “capitalism” the belief that human progress depended on economic and technological progress; the conflict between the two main victors of WWII was a family quarrel rather than a battle to the death between alien powers.
My error in imagining that 9/11 would awaken the West to the dangers of its victimary obsession, which has only increased since that time, no doubt reflected my unexamined presupposition that the signs of breakdown of the Pax Americana, of weakness in Daddy’s protection in the family structure, would lead to a more mature acceptance of the benefits of Western democracy and thereby to a diminution of victimary passion. I should have realized that it would have the opposite effect; once one has pledged one’s faith to the victimary paradigm, the only solution to its problems is more, not less victimary behavior, just as welfare states can only solve the problem of dependency through ever more transfer payments. The point is that the confidence in Daddy that makes us anxious to demonstrate contempt for our “privilege” is of a piece with the cowardice that leads us, when Daddy no longer inspires confidence, to insist to his former “victims” that we had always hated our now-former privilege and should not therefore be punished for it.
This point came up in 2010 during a discussion between Adam Katz and me in Chronicle 400 about the relative importance of fear and White Guilt in our submissive behavior toward terrorists. I claimed that such things as the Western phobia of “Islamophobia” that leads us after each Islamic atrocity to apologize in advance for the “backlash” that never seems to occur was motivated by a desire to acquire insurance for the future, as when Swedish “Minister of Democracy” Jens Orback said back in 2006: “We must be open and tolerant toward Islam and the Muslims because when we become a minority, they will be so toward us” (see Chronicle 337). Adam, in contrast, saw these acts as directed essentially to gaining the approval of the Western “hegemonic” population.
But the real point is that these two attitudes are mutually reinforcing. The child who disrespects Daddy knowing that Daddy will protect him anyway and the child who disrespects Daddy to show the local bully that he’s really on his side are very much the same person. Neither is the old-fashioned child who uses Daddy’s power to assert power in his own right—not a lovely role, but one that demonstrates a healthy respect for firstness.
White Guilt is an attempt to assure victory by playing on both sides at the same time, denying the necessity of firstness while profiting from it, seeking to atone for superiority by apotropaic symbolic gestures. But these gestures are only functionally symbolic. The victimary is a religion that denies its religious nature. Since the dawn of the modern world, revolutionary hostility to organized religion has led to substituting a “secular” religion in its place, starting in 1794 with Robespierre’s Culte de l’Etre suprême. But as a form of religious activity, the victimary much more assiduously and self-consciously than the various sects of Marxism avoids any hint of transcendent absolution even as we denounce our own privilege and especially that of the “racists” and “sexists” among us. Victimary lynching is not an organized rite, on the contrary, its “sincerity” depends on it being wholly spontaneous and unestheticized, self-organizing content without prior form—like Girard’s emissary victimage. As the Sacco case described in Chronicle 480 shows (but also those of Donald Sterling, or Brendan Eich, or Larry Summers), to maintain their bona fides, the lynch mobs who inflict real penalties on deviants do not allow them (in contrast to the Catholic Inquisition or Communist “reeducation”) to expiate their guilt and rejoin their victimary accusers. The indelible stain of “privilege” bespeaks a psychologized variant of nineteenth-century racialism.
All content and no form; this returns us to the question of the media. Twitter, as in the case of poor Ms Sacco, is the medium of choice for the denunciation of privilege because its 140-character limit is focused on spontaneous content at the expense of prior reflection and analysis. The point is that if you have to engage in argument, your soul has not wholly absorbed the victimary truth, which should always be intuitively apparent. The administration’s ever-increasing contempt for legal formalities (Hillary’s mail, anyone?) that has led Mark Steyn to speak of the US under Obama as a “banana republic” reflects the Left’s increasing impatience with hesitation to recognize and act on victimary truths of any kind, including “climate change”—a number of scientific “deniers” of which were recently proposed for investigation by a Democratic congressman.
Victimary thought has introduced all kinds of neologisms in recent years, many ending in –phobia. But these are labels rather than concepts; their “structure” is simply that of returning the implicit expulsion they denounce against their original perpetrators. Deconstruction was the master-concept of all these, and it suffices to compare Derrida’s pregnant notion of différance with Islamophobia, transphobia, cis-genderism and the like to trace the march of the victimary through our era’s intellectual life.
What can save the West? Just to ask this question suggests that traditional political-science justifications for liberal democracy have become impotent. I have been writing perhaps a bit obsessively about ISIS, but not only does a greater threat come from Iran and its proxies in the Middle East, but on the world scale, the West is threatened commercially and no doubt in the near future militarily by China as well as by the spoiler role played by Putin in reestablishing Russian hegemony in the territories of the former Soviet empire. Who in 1989-91 would have dreamt that twenty-odd years later Russia would annex Crimea, occupy eastern Ukraine and parts of Georgia, and begin to threaten the Baltic states?
What seems to be taking place is a contradiction between Francis Fukuyama’s still unimpeachable conclusion that liberal democracy is the “end of history” for socio-political systems in the domains of technological innovation, freedom of thought and association, health and life expectancy, and in every other aspect of the quality of human life, and the increasingly obtrusive fact that the West’s indubitable superiorities are no longer clearly correlated with the will to defend itself against the parasitic forces that profit from its technology to threaten its social hegemony. Western colonialism, like it or not, was clearly the spreading of a higher civilization among less successful ones, and its overall results were more positive than negative. But the spread of Islamic jihad, Russian adventurism, and even the more civilized threat of Chinese hegemony are less comparable to the Roman colonization of Gaul than to the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths.
While doing our best to promote GA’s essentially positive view of Western civilization, our urgent task is, beyond polemics, to understand the attraction of victimary thinking as well as of radical Islam and/or antisemitism for the members of Western societies. The primary context of this attraction is the decline in the West of Judeo-Christian religion. One thing we have certainly learned from the “media” in our time is that whereas “nothing is sacred” in Judeo-Christian religion, the two “religions” that threaten the West, victimocracy and radical Islam, have been much more effective in retaining their sacrality.
It seems to me that our key task for the future is deepening the connection between GA and the biblical religions, which is to say, pursuing the work begun by Girard to integrate the Judeo-Christian anthropological foundations of the West with its “Greek” technological rationalism. The spate of rather silly “atheism” books of a few years ago was in its way a valuable wake-up call. Western religion cannot simply fade away; it must renew itself, failing which it will be replaced by the far cruder belief-systems we are struggling against today.
For the moment, we cannot do better than take “Spengler” at his word in How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (Regnery, 2011), that the example of Israel, nationally and demographically, represents today, for all its flaws, the best hope for humankind. If it can survive the (hopefully temporary) American withdrawal from international leadership and the ominous possibility of an Iranian bomb, the Hebrew/Jewish people may once more justify the faith of those who claimed millennia ago that its firstness would make it “a light unto the nations.”
After all, as Girard knows better than anyone, to really know the Bible is to know mimetic theory and Generative Anthropology. We are merely its explicators. Those who would advance the human science of anthropology can progress only by building on the revelations of our predecessors. But we need to do more to persuade others that these revelations provide us with truths of science as well as of faith.