This first anniversary of these Chronicles is an appropriate moment for taking stock. Has this column been of cultural value? in other words, has it helped to promote the cause of love over resentment?
The GAlist has grown from 35 to over 170, and in June the Anthropoetics WWW site reached a new high of over 3000 accesses, exclusive of images. This modest expansion shows that there is indeed an audience for originary thinking in, or in between, the humanities and the social sciences.
For this anniversary column, I thought it would be useful to discuss a few underlying preoccupations of originary anthropology not altogether apparent from the definition of the human as the deferral of violence through representation.
The Critique of Liberalism
Some of my best friends, many subscribers to this list, and the vast majority of the intelligentsia are liberals. But current debates about affirmative action, welfare, and balanced budgets reflect the waning of liberalism; its fundamental intuitions are becoming counter-productive. The clearest sign of this is the increasingly sacrificial nature of liberal rhetoric, its increasing demonization of its opponents.
Liberalism is a deliberately anti-sacrificial, anti-ritual outlook with roots in the Enlightenment. Its fundamental discovery procedure is to search for the traces of the sacrificial in secular society. Any sign of disadvantage is interpreted as prima facie evidence of victimization. In a liberal polity, the vocation of the political order is to make up for this victimization by the granting of material compensation.
Liberal care for victims is not a minor accomplishment. A critique of liberalism must offer an alternative procedure for rooting out the sacrificial residues in our society. When is it appropriate to identify a class of victims? If our fundamental criterion of humanity is participation in the social dialogue, we must applaud the presence in the political conversation of members of groups previously excluded. The “majority” can no longer speak about “minorities” as external others; everything said must be sayable in the presence of all. But the newly included cannot inherit victimary rights from the previously excluded, however recent the inclusion. Dialogue is a postritual activity; it may have losers, but no victims. The external rhetoric of victimage is never appropriate from within.
In the current context, the Republican–and now Clintonian–rhetoric about balancing the budget “for the sake of our children” signifies less a concern for budgets or children than a need to transcend the liberal rhetoric of victimary compensation, which we can only do by balancing the claims of one group of innocents with those of another. Originary thinking allows us to understand the trade-off in programs of group preference between the positive function of admitting new voices to the dialogue and the negative one of creating quasi-permanent categories of victims. It suggests that once the new conversation has begun, victimary language must be excluded lest it legitimize racial and ethnic resentments potentially far more damaging to the social order from within than from without.
Religion and Culture
Is this a historically progressive critique of liberalism? This can be reformulated as a religious question: Is there an alternative to the binary opposition of traditional religion and liberal secularism? Can the fundamental moral intuition that defends us from mimetic violence be founded on an anthropological hypothesis? Does the understanding of the link between language and the transcendental that is the heart of GA allow us to dispense with traditional religion, or, on the contrary, does it force us to recognize the inevitable specificity of historical revelations, as opposed to revelation in general?
Much more reflection is required on the relationship between the semiotic and the cultural-religious spheres. It seems almost too obvious that ideas about immortality, eternity, and the like are attributes of the sign that we attach to our idea of the sacred, or in other terms, that these sacred attributes are revealed to us only through their manifestation in language.
This idea finds little resonance in the religious thinking of any epoch, including our own. Yet the critique of ritual sacrifice, which reaches its high point in Christianity but is clearly present in Buddhism and in all modern religions, is explicitly related to the equation of the sacred with the linguistic: “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word is what defines us as not living by bread alone; it affirms our essence as spiritual before it is material. The elimination of material sacrifice (Jesus driving the merchants out of the Temple) brings the indefinite multiplication of goods (bread and fishes) modeled on the reproducibility of signs as opposed to things: if we truly share the Word, our material problems will pose us no difficulty. Deconstruction’s stab at this intuition was flawed by its naively victimary critique of phallogocentrism; in this, it followed the pattern of contemporary liberalism.
Love and Resentment
If GA would have us do without the consolations of religion, how does it help us to generate love from resentment? Does the originary understanding of the human grant us a deeper understanding of the role of love-relationships as oases and testing-grounds for the trials of the universal marketplace?
The current preoccupations of the intellectual world make it less rather than more eager to reflect on the unity of mimesis. As I wondered a few columns ago, is a generative hypothesis of the human possible? Is GA’s understanding of its problematic status in the dialogue of either the humanities or the social sciences a sufficient basis on which to create, as it has shown some signs of doing, its own dialogic space?
These are questions I hope to explore with you in these Chronicles and on the GAlist during the coming year.