The complexity of the title of this Chronicle is sufficient indication that it does not represent a fully matured idea, but one of those intuitions it seemed useful to follow as a way of understanding, perhaps before it is too late, what has so demoralized the defenders of “Western Civilization.”
Clearly something has changed on the American Left. If the Republican Party has had difficulty in asserting itself despite the extraordinary endorsement it received in last November’s election, it is because it has not changed its fundamental attitude to the political scene, domestic or foreign, whereas its Democratic opponents have become far more radical.
I would like to avoid polemics here as much as possible, and to remain on an “anthropological” level. We must consider that any arguments to the effect that my political views, as opposed to those I disagree with, are more consonant with the originary constitution of humanity, must be, however true or false, secondary to the fact that both sides of the debate derive from central moments of the originary scene.
How can we explain the increased acrimony of the political debate, with its intensifying expressions of mutual contempt (again, my view of which side is more guilty need not detain us here)? The two sides represent the two imperatives born in the originary event, imperatives not simply symmetrical but both equally necessary: reciprocity and firstness. The first sign could only have operated successfully if the proto-mimetic-desire of these proto-humans made them capable of imitating (rather than turning against) the one or more individuals who first thought to abort their appropriative gestures and conceive them as “meaningful” in themselves, as possessing a form. I will always be grateful to Adam Katz for introducing into GA the notion of firstness. But the destiny of the firstness of the originary sign is to dissolve itself in the collective reciprocity of its exchange, the “moral model” that is the universal, as opposed to the particular, realization of originary humanity. Not everyone can be, or must be, first; but everyone has to participate in reciprocity, everyone must be “moral.” A firstness that fails to lead to this universal exchange is not firstness at all, but an aberration that risks provoking, in Girardian terms, “emissary” violence.
Firstness is an essential component of the human, but it is never simply a factor of stability; it inevitably has the potential for generating resentment. If we speak of “right” and “left” in all more or less democratic polities since the French Revolution, it is because with the decline of ritual-based agricultural societies, the bourgeois era sets up an unending tension between the freedom of individual achievers and the rights of the public as a whole: “freedom” and “equality,” liberté and égalité, which the French revolutionaries tried to resolve in a Hegelian synthesis with the collective fraternité that ended their famous slogan. But “fraternity” is merely a sentiment; it is the task of liberal-democratic institutions to work out the conditions of political debate that will lead to maximal harmony, or in less Durkheimian terms, minimal conflict—a task to which they are not always equal.
There is nothing new or controversial here, save perhaps in the simplicity with which the originary hypothesis allows us to understand these fundamental aspects of the human collectivity.
What GA suggests is that the present acrimony reflects an increased tension between these two imperatives. The point of this Chronicle is to propose that the Left’s increasingly radical impatience with elements of order that promote firstness and therefore enter into tension with the principle of reciprocity, which, as we have seen, is the more fundamental and collectively unproblematic of the two principles, reflects the increasing disconnect between the fundamental equality of all before language and representation generally and the differential skills with signs and representation that define success in an increasingly “digital” society.
The society that creates the “digital humanities” is the society that not only produces the famous widening gap between rich and poor, but more specifically, that offers no obvious path for the less digitally gifted to close this gap. However much residual racism may exist within (white) police forces, the most fundamental cause for the black resentment so much in the news recently is the “digital divide,” for which, whatever its plausibility, the only tolerable explanation is some form of victimization.
The victimary model of society was born in the Holocaust, but its particularly American version, as Peter Goldman recently reminded me, is marked by our unique history of slavery and segregation. This model’s recent evolution is the product of the two phases of the Civil Rights struggle: the end of de jure discrimination, and the redefinition of “disparate impact” as de facto discrimination. There is no reason to assume that this is likely to change in the near future. It has been pointed out that whatever Obama’s symbolic importance for the African-American community, which I have always taken quite seriously, his administration has not been marked by any improvement in this community’s economic fortunes, let alone a reduction of its >70% illegitimacy rate—which, as Charles Murray pointed out in Coming Apart, the white working class, for similar reasons, seems destined to imitate.
The human is the digital, as I pointed out in my first discussion of Digital Humanities (DH) in Chronicle 477. Thus a world dependent on particular digital skills, as opposed to manual labor, poses a permanent moral question in a way that earlier social systems did not. Hierarchies of priests/scribes atop a vast world of peasants may be tyrannical, and are certainly far more unequal than modern societies, but their inequalities were so clearly “Rawlsian,” justified by the needs of the social order as a whole, that they were rarely challenged; “peasant revolts” were safety valves rather than real contestations of the social order. The signs manipulated by these scribes, even when commercially motivated, were still part of the world of the sacred, or to put it differently, of the human world, the world as it exists for us.
It is very significant that even at its height, Greek antiquity did not apply mathematics to the empirical study of nature. Perhaps we can explain this by the prevalence of slavery, but another way of understanding it is that the world of signs could “humanize” nature by naming its parts and observable phenomena, but the construction of mathematizable models that would permit devising experiments to determine the “laws of nature,” and from there, the development of modern technology, was inconceivable. The world of symbolic representation made nature part of the world of humanity, and only very slowly, through the astronomical gadgets of the middle ages and the gradual liberation of urban society from the official sacred of the Church, did the “Copernican revolution” become possible, and with it, technology and modern industry. The Enlightenment is properly understood as a paradigm shift in the primary use of signs from sacred to secular, from the human to the natural, and from the mythical-narrative-iconic to the digital.
Yet in the early phases of the bourgeois or “capitalist” era, Marx’s labor theory of value demonstrated that physical work could still credibly be considered the basis of the political economy, even if it was now labor in factories and mines rather than in the fields. For Marx, “brain workers” were parasites on the laborer’s “surplus value.” Today, work with signs has in many instances replaced much or all physical labor; those with the appropriate skills are able to program machines to perform an increasing percentage of the former laborers’ tasks. But at the point where the labor theory of value is no longer tenable, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the socio-economic order to those whose contribution to it has become marginal when it exists at all. Language must then be found to translate the limitations of those unskilled in digital techniques into marks of oppression.
One could argue that the increased attention on campuses, and eventually in the wider society, on micro-aggressions and the like are ways of emphasizing the universality not of human difference per se but of ascriptive-group difference, that is, of the likelihood that what appears to be individual merit is really membership in privileged classes, the “white” majority and its allies, who maintain their dominance by subtly confining other groups to inferior status. From the standpoint of traditional common sense, this is an absurdity, but from that of originary morality, it simply imposes the moral model in a context where traditional norms of “fairness” are no longer producing movement in the right direction.
The growing hostility and incomprehension between the two sides is easily enough understood as reflecting the growing inadequacy in the digital age of the traditional liberal-democratic behavioral norms established by the originally dominant ethnic group. These norms are not supposed to do more than demonstrate adherence to social normality, while career advancement in a world where all obey them is presumed to reflect individual “merit.” In the past this system worked more or less well to improve lives at all levels, albeit with considerably more disadvantages for blacks than other ethnic groups, as well as for women in “men’s work.” But in the pre-Holocaust era not only were such irregularities in the practice of fairness not considered serious defects in the system, but—and here is the new element I think it necessary to introduce—the traditional idea of “labor” still obtained, according to which “real work” created value and mere “paperwork” was an unavoidable excrescence on value creation.
It is only marginally a coincidence that the digital era proper was born in the battle against the Axis; the digital computer was created by Turing, von Neumann and Co. in the heat of battle. Which is to say in other terms that the Nazis, who had some of the world’s best scientists, had not yet grasped the central socio-economic feature of what we can now call the postmodern, which is the domination of the world of the sign over the processes of material production. Firstness, after all, is the domain of the (arbitrary) sign, and therefore, in Nazi terms, of “the Jew.” For the “Master Race” is not first like the first user of a sign; it is ontologically superior, a higher, more sacred form of being. The fascist dream reattaches cultural signs to their sacred context, as though a world of increasingly digital sign-manipulation could be retained within a system of social compactness symbolized by the fascist sheaf. Eliminating the Jews was “shooting the messenger,” what in less horrible circumstances could be called a “category error.”
No doubt it is impossible to deduce the emergence of cyberspace from the defeat of the Axis powers and the post-Holocaust demise of de jure caste relations, but the overall connection seems clear enough. Postwar prosperity “lifted all boats,” and the computerization of work proceeded only slowly; again not coincidentally, this was the period Thomas Piketty in his 2014 best-seller Capital in the 21st Century sees as an exception to the dominance of the equation r>g that expresses in his system the widening gap between the fortunes of capital and labor, or as we might put it, the secular-digital and the sacred-analog. But at a certain point digitization began to pick up speed, and its ultimate trajectory became visible; the manipulation of signs became not the secondary but increasingly the primary component of industrial production, save in a few areas (such as the extractive industries—those, not coincidentally, specifically demonized in the other component of the Left’s new belief-system, of which I will speak below).
In a sign-oriented system of production, unskilled and even semi-skilled labor lose their value. Motor skills, basic intelligence, and the kind of training that allows someone to work on an assembly line are no longer the entry conditions of a decent living. Murray’s Losing Ground, cited above, limits its discussion of the effect of this development to the white working class precisely to avoid confusing it with the racial problems that have received such attention in the contemporary political marketplace. The comi-tragic conflicts that play out on campuses over racial micro-aggressions are ways of dealing symbolically with the caste/class divergence between the digitally skilled and the rest. For whether it be attributed to “privilege” or native ability, this divergence is fundamental. The secularized world aligns socio-economic success with the ability to manipulate signs, no longer as a sacred art, but as a matter of mental circuitry generating practical results. No doubt society can tolerate this form of inequality as it has tolerated caste distinctions in the past, but this one, because it touches on the fundamental human characteristic of equality before the sign, an equality formerly violated only with sacred sanction, has the effect of rendering increasingly irrational or “symbolic” the political battles it inspires. The moral model is compatible with individual differences in symbolic intelligence, but for these differences to become the chief determinants of worldly success undermines the general confidence that all human beings share the equal moral status defined at the outset by the universal ability to reciprocally exchange the originary sign.
Beyond human victimology, the other, perhaps yet more salient aspect of the victimary mindset is concern for the environment, which has in the past decade or so been dominated by the fear of “climate change.” No one believes that we should not do our best to conserve natural resources, avoid polluting the air and water, etc. But those who claim that climate change is the most serious problem facing humanity today are, I believe, making a claim less natural-scientific than anthropological. The issue has been so politicized, indeed, so sacralized, that there is really no way for the layperson, or perhaps even for the scientists themselves, to obtain more than the vaguest idea of the relative probabilities associated with it—which is in a sense the whole quasi-religious point of the anti-“climate change” campaign, obliging skeptics to take its “scientific” basis on faith, and at the same time stigmatizing its “denial” as the equivalent of believing the earth is only 6000 years old.
For whatever the dangers to which the human generation of carbon dioxide and other products of industrial heat-production may one day subject us, and however wise it may be to be prudent about such matters even in the absence of anything like hard evidence, one thing is clear from the anthropological standpoint: if we all believed that “climate change” were indeed the most urgent problem facing humanity, then the challenges presented by the modern age to human solidarity would be sharply diminished. Imagine if North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Russia and ISIS, Israel and Hamas, Turks and Armenians, all agreed that this was the problem to which their best efforts must be devoted…
And at the very least, any actions we take on behalf of “the environment” contribute to human solidarity by being virtuous in themselves, having no other than positive results. Thus even I—more, in point of fact, than my mostly liberal neighbors—”religiously” take out the recycling once a week, even though I remain skeptical as to the real savings in energy and time accomplished by holding onto glass and paper rather than dumping them in the landfill. I do hope my efforts over the years have saved humanity a bit of energy and salvaged some materials that would otherwise have to be mined or otherwise produced from scratch, but I wouldn’t really be surprised to learn that humanity would have been better off if I had simply tossed it all in the garbage.
As in all such cases, the real point of the “debate” between Right and Left is undecidable, given the layers of symbolic action that encumber it. Admitting that if we all agreed that saving the environment were our principal concern, we would be less rivalrous in our other activities, part of the frustration that leads the Left to speak of the Right in dehumanizing terms stems from the scandal of seeing people whose concern for seeking firstness in some domain of economic reality blinds them to the “obvious” virtue of seeking a common goal. One important way to define such a goal is to define Nature as humanity’s—but above all, Western, industrialized humanity’s—victim, and to therefore be suspicious a priori of any activity that appears to transform it irreversibly, even if such things as the depletion of oil reserves are no longer genuine objects of concern. Here we have no need to accuse ourselves and others of racism and sexism, merely of the sinfulness of desiring beings. To deny climate change is, so to speak, to share the arrogance of Lucifer’s revolt against the divine order of things.
The moral model inscribed in the human psyche is a structure of what might be called imperative anthropology. Which is to say that its incontrovertible moral “rightness” makes it impossible to disprove its critiques of “disparate impact.” No doubt the overall notion of moral equality is compatible with a differential ability to handle the manipulation of signs, which has been the case for as long as human society has existed. But in modern societies where the manipulation of signs has been divorced from the sacred realm to which it was once confined and become the basis for most forms of social success, any group divergence suggests that some groups possess this ability definitively more than others, and hence are closer to the sacred center of the human scene, which in secular terms is experienced as an unjustifiable “privilege.” In the effort, praiseworthy in itself, to counter this temptation, claiming that members of other groups are victims of micro-aggressions is merely a way of evening the score. If this is indeed true, and can be said to reflect the wrongs of past history, then we need not face the stickier question of how to improve the relative skills of the less successful sign-manipulators. At a second degree, the same need to stigmatize micro-aggressors arises in the case of “triggers” that either traumatize members of victim groups or desensitize members of the hegemonic group to their micro-aggressive tendencies. Reading Huckleberry Finn without appropriate warnings (or perhaps at all) might produce the impression that the “n-word” is an acceptable form of speech. On the surface these are infuriating obstacles to everyday interaction, but given that any inequality on the scene of representation can be blamed on the social order—indeed, on humanity—as a whole, they remind us to preserve the moral imperative of sign-related equality.
No doubt there is more to these tensions than I have expressed here, but this Chronicle’s focus on the anthropological category of the sign and its unique status is something that GA is uniquely able to articulate. The correlation between the transfer, beginning in the late Renaissance, of sign-manipulation from the sacred world to the secular one of mathematical models that permit the technological and scientific manipulation of nature is no secret, but we can understand it in a new light in the context of the originary hypothesis.
Digital humanity, in a word, is a far more powerful concept than the digital humanists have so far been able to grasp, although it validates their deepest intuition in as yet inchoately explored ways. For as my previous Chronicle suggested, DH is at the very least an effort to take Western Civilization out of its victimary rut.