During a conversation with Matt Schneider the other day, the question arose as to what GA can add to our understanding of our most visible current event: the Simpson trial. Or better put, what can the Simpson trial add to our understanding of originary anthropology?
The OJ trial is a contingent event, not an esthetic object created for our satisfaction. Social scientists are forever establishing statistical measures of significance where philosophers simply oppose contingency and necessity. But originary thinkers understand that in an event, significance emerges out of worldly contingency. This emergence is not a regrettable problem of methodology; it is the originary essence of the human.
Our sense of justice derives from the resentment we feel when we are treated unjustly. But no social order can operate according to the model of perfect reciprocity that the sense of justice holds up to it. Just as the deferral of mimetic crisis was the origin of the human, the deferral of resentment is the function of human culture.
Murder trials, like all cultural events, provide occasions for us to purge our resentment by identifying with the protagonists of an agon that does not concern us directly. The focus of our desire is the accused murderer, who, unlike his victims, has become famous while still alive. (We suspect that murderers kill for publicity, like Herostratus burning down the temple of Diana at Ephesus so that his name would not be forgotten; as you see, he was successful.) This scandal nourishes the drama of the trial. Either our desire for justice seeks to avenge less the murder than the celebrity of the murderer, or else a resentful identification with the latter’s victimary status predominates and we hope that, now that his immortality is assured and the murder therefore no longer necessary, he will be declared innocent.
We thus condemn or acquit the central figure of the murder trial for his very centrality. As the primitive meaning of trial recalls, our judicial system originates in sacrificial ritual; trial by fire is older than trial by jury. But for the trial to purge us of our resentment, its verdict must be rationally motivated; we must be assured that if the accused is punished or released, it is not as an effect of our desires, but because he is indeed guilty or innocent. Although our sense of justice is discovered through resentment, the justice that restores the peaceful equality of the originary scene is a precondition for the reciprocity of love. (My article in Anthropoetics I, no. 1 touches on these questions.)
We normally envy the fame a murder trial accords to the accused murderer. But this is no ordinary murder trial. O. J. Simpson may well be the most famous person ever accused of a private, violent crime; he, of all people, had no need of Herostratus’ example. His central position at the trial–where he is constantly on camera although he plays no active role–strikes us as scandalously irreconcilable with the celebrity he had already achieved. OJ’s detractors are doubly hostile because his fame has eliminated their secret point of identification with him, while his defenders take the very incongruity of his situation as proof of his innocence. Tensions are equally exacerbated by the race/sex configuration. As an accused wife-beater, OJ is a figure of domination; yet as a Black man first married to and then obsessed with a white woman, he plays the role of the victim.
Generative anthropology is founded on the idea that language originated as the solution to the pragmatic paradox created by the convergence of multiple desires on a single central object. The incongruities of the celebrity as criminal, the Black man as a figure of hegemony, are not paradoxes in a logical sense, but they sufficiently perturb our normal set of responses to create a crisis in social logic. As a result, the trial becomes a drama in which the rational component, instead of presiding over the whole, becomes just one contending force among others. The rational view of the judicial process as the search for truth contends with a political view of it as the plaything of power-relations. At a time when we are debating the wisdom of group-centered policies founded on the notion that politics is a more powerful social force than reason, we seem to have come upon a public drama that neatly opposes the two.
But the situation is complicated by the fact that the rational outcome of the trial, which would be to find the evidence more than sufficient for conviction, would also be understood as a political triumph of the universalist majority over the victimary minority. For this reason, OJ is a dangerous hero for the minority cause. In closing its case by impeaching a detective’s use of racial epithets rather than addressing the murder itself, the defense is promoting the triumph of resentment over rationality. If, as most expect, OJ is not convicted, the result will only encourage the majority to dismiss the minority’s sense of justice as the product of resentment unconfirmed by reason. It is a risky game for a minority to emphasize the political over the rational; once the majority feels it has reason on its side, it will soon discover it has political preponderance as well.
But the trial is precisely not a part of the political process. It is a trial in yet another sense, a dry run for the negotiation of resentments that defines political life in democracy. If indeed the outcome is a triumph of resentment over reason, it is preferable that it occur in a venue that has no direct effect on our lives, where it can be discussed and assimilated rather than turned into public policy.
The Simpson trial is an example of what Douglas Collins of the University of Washington calls the pre-humiliated character of our public protagonists, whom we allow to occupy center stage only upon proof of their unworthiness. By reducing the public scene of representation to the petit écran, television insures our sense of superiority to the action that takes place before us. But what is the alternative? The reality of social crisis and the violence that attends it? We are surely better off learning our lessons in ethics from the TV dramas of our unheroic postmodern world.
I hope you have borne with me during this excursion into alien territory. I’ll return to the domain of the originary next week.