The cognitive content of religious discourse, when it is taken seriously at all in the secular world, is generally limited to the moral domain. If religion gets any credit at all among the intelligentsia, it is for promoting human reciprocity: “all are equal in the eyes of the Lord.” The Ten Commandments largely embody, albeit with some extraneous material, the morality of “do unto others…,” which Hillel famously considered the equivalent of “the Law and the prophets.”
But this gets religion essentially backward. No special doctrine is required to teach universal equality; it is the closest thing we have to a “moral instinct.” Its formulation as a set of rules, that is, as an ethic, is a reminder that even in hierarchical societies, reciprocity is respected in most human interactions. But the key function of religion is quite the contrary: the affirmation of firstness. The moral reciprocity of humans depends on the firstness of gods, and minimally, of the One God who still rules the West; human firstness is a reflection of divine firstness. If religion is in trouble in the West today, it is that it has largely abandoned the defense of God and firstness, if not the reality of firstness itself, out of impatience with its slowly-yielding dominance in the face of the resentment of what we sometimes still call the “Third World,” the world of the West’s “victims.”
Religion is a fairly specific social phenomenon; the sacred, in contrast, is coterminous with the human, not as what it is, but as what it is not. As a minimal definition, anything whose appropriation is deferred through representation is, to that extent, sacred. Which is to say that humans live in a world of sacrality. With the exception of a few instinctive gestures and “irresistible impulses” justly considered evidence of insanity, the sane human mind is always mediated by signs.
In tribal, egalitarian societies, forms of reciprocity always prevail, and any asymmetry is in principle balanced by an equivalent; this is the message of Mauss’ seminal Essai sur le don. Any example of firstness, as exemplified by the gift A gives B, must be compensated by a similar exercise, either a gift from B to A, or more characteristically, from B to C, creating a chain of mutual obligation that never reaches formal equilibrium because new obligations are constantly being created, ideally without ever leading to an accumulation of an excess of gifts or obligations in any one household.
Originary religion justifies not human but divine firstness; the central object cannot be appropriated, but must be contemplated and celebrated during the period of deferral. If the originary event is to have a successful outcome, that is, to truly be an event, the first to realize this, the first “worshiper”—a point Adam Katz added to GA’s originally symmetrical model of the originary event—cannot be singled out for his role, which must be imitated by all his fellows. And the asymmetry between a group of just-humans and an animal carcass is quite different from that between the first human emitter of the sign and those who come after. But that there is a secret parallel is already implicit in Judaism and explicit in Christianity; the being in the center is potentially human, even essentially human. Humans could not have invented language without attributing its origin to the scenic center, that is, to God.
The fundamental trait of humanity, as manifested in the originary event, is the capacity to exchange signs in the place of gestures of appropriation whose imitation is conducive to mutual violence. Each offers as a “gift” an act of asymmetrical self-privation that is received by the others who pass it on. The gift itself is a repetition of originary firstness: in the substitution of the sign for the appropriative gesture, my “performance” assures deferral of appropriation but also offers the others a token of the energy that might have led to such appropriation, now repurposed as a linguistic utterance, a little piece of “performance art.”
My deferral of appropriation is your assurance that the object we both desire remains intact. My appetite for the object itself is supplemented not merely by “mimetic desire” but more specifically by originary resentment. The fact of contemplating, intending, thematizing the object makes its centrality the source of a rage that increases as the fear of mutual violence recedes. It is at this point that the central object becomes the Girardian “scapegoat,” but the rage or menis in question is not dependent on its cospecificity. Aside from the hunger it inspires, its centrality is in itself sufficient to provoke resentment; conversely, the capacity to provoke resentment is also a sign that the center is not permanently inviolable.
The sparagmos that we hypothesize as the conclusion of the originary event after a certain delay is the fulfillment of this resentment, as well of course as the satisfaction of the hunger. Here again it is the genius of Christianity to point up the primacy of the moral resentment over the physical need. But this discovery depends on the attainment of a level of social organization where hunger is no longer a central concern; freed from slavery to instinct in exchange for his tribute to Caesar, the Christian is able to return to the originary intuition that it is human relations that are paramount, that our relationship with nature depends on the preexistence of a human community that protects its members by deferring potential mimetic violence.
GA first used the term “firstness” in reference not to the center but to the First to abort his attempt to appropriate the object by intending his gesture as a sign. The first signing gesture is a renunciation of designs on the central object and consequently a source of pacification. In a situation of potential conflict in which all are rivals, the signer renounces appropriating the object in order to designate it as what cannot be appropriated, hence as the source of the group’s resentment. The resulting sparagmos discharges this tension both appetitively and aggressively. By opening up the new “vertical” dimension that creates the human, the First creates an indefinitely imitable gesture that defers resentment, and at the same time inaugurates an interdiction that is not a mere inhibition stimulated by a more powerful member of the same species, but a product, indeed, the very definition, of intentionality, Sartre’s pour-soi.
Yet the aborted gesture is nonetheless at a second remove a potential source of resentment. Unlike the appropriative gesture it replaces, it demands attention, the joint shared attention unique to our species. We cannot assume that the First was singled out in the originary event, for if he met with any resistance he could not have inaugurated a symmetrical exchange. But if this originary firstness was uniquely successful, it is because it was uniquely able to designate for the first time the central object as a privileged target of the love-and-resentment that is sacred significance. Once the scene of representation exists, the one who reveals it to the others, while transferring his firstness to the center, is also reinserting himself in an already-existing relationship to that center, and effectively proclaiming his own derivative firstness in the human sphere—the prototype of the role of big-man. By designating the central object as alone worthy of attention, the First plays the role of the Hebrews in revealing the One God to the nations. The exemplary case of the Mosaic revelation is the origin of Judaism—and also of antisemitism.
The originary sign focuses originary resentment on the center and inaugurates an egalitarian community. But we should not picture this community as a utopian société commencée in which the birth of hierarchical society, signaled by Rousseau’s famous Ceci est à moi, figures the Fall of Man. Anthropologists will tell you that egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies are the most violent of all, hence, we may assume, the most resentful. And this stands to reason if we consider that the projection of resentment onto the center alone works only if there is no inter-human inequality to resent, and in order to prevent the latter, members of the society must be constantly vigilant. The giver of Mauss’ gift is very much aware that he is owed something in return, if not by the recipient then by some other member of the group under the obligation to produce it.
The ritual practices of egalitarian societies maintain the focus of resentment and worship on the central figure in order to allay the constant suspicion that other members of the group are violating the rule of equidistance from the center. The repetition of the sparagmos as sacrifice is the central feature of these rituals. The complex organization that Durkheim describes, where throughout the year the several clans offer feasts each centered on their specific “totem” animal, is both a transition to a truly hierarchical big-man society and a means of deferring it. “Alternate firstness” is the pattern of human life; only in ritual acts like the sparagmos, and even then only “ideally,” can reciprocity be simultaneous.
In what Voegelin calls the “compact” world of the early kingdoms, the ritual universe was built around the centrality of the monarch, who was often himself worshiped as a deity. The Hebrew Exodus was a liberation from this association of worship with political domination. The Hebrew nation did not deny the necessity of human firstness, but no longer attached it directly to the divinity, which was revealed as the universal One God. Having escaped from the compact world that confuses worldly sovereignty with sacrality, the Hebrews saw themselves as chosen to reveal this truth to the “nations.” Samuel’s famous warning (Samuel I, 8) to the Israelites who demanded a king is a sign of this detachment. The entire society, the people, is the effective agent of enlightenment; its governing agency is of merely instrumental importance.
Modernity’s rejection of religion coincides with its hostility to firstness. The Enlightenment seeks a utopia of reciprocity without firstness, although the very possibility of reciprocity requires the acceptance of firstness—in the “revolutionary” case, that of the political “vanguard.” We have said enough about the totalitarian socialisms of the 20th century. But the neo-victimary era that began in earnest in 1989 believes it has found the final solution to the problem of firstness in the potentially endless denunciation of ascriptive discrimination (racism, sexism, homophobia…). Firstness will never disappear, and neither will its denunciation; were it not for the reactions it provokes in the West’s undemocratic rivals, victimocracy might continue forever.
Seeking to “revive religion” would be the most futile of endeavors; religion is of all human activities the most profoundly “its own reward.” But seeing the difficulty American politics and the West as a whole increasingly have in asserting the rights of firstness, the current presidential campaign offers some solace. The pundits still have not understood that the key to Donald Trump’s attraction is not as the embodiment of the voters’ “rage at Washington” or “distrust of politicians,” but as the anti-PC candidate, the anti-victimary candidate, the firstness candidate, even to the point of boorishness. I think the rise of Bernie Sanders similarly reflects a nostalgic affection for a member of an earlier generation brought up before PC.
As Adam Katz suggests in his most recent GA blogs, a post-victimary trend may be emerging that is not, pace the Democratic Party, a recrudescence of “racism,” but on the contrary an attempt to return to judging human beings not by ascriptive but by performative criteria, by what someone once called “the content of their character.” It is only through such adherence to the principles of liberal democracy that the United States can remain, in defiance of University of California officialdom, a “land of opportunity,” and the model for a world of such lands.