1. Qui perd gagne [the loser wins]
Jean-Paul Sartre deserves much more attention than he gets today, not simply for historical reasons as the world’s leading intellectual in the postwar era, but because his work embodies the final attempt of classical metaphysics to achieve a, shall we say, non-deconstructive view of the world. In his longest work, L’idiot de la famille, unfinished in three thick volumes, he analyzed Gustave Flaubert’s juvenilia at the same time as I was writing my dissertation on the same subject. Fortunately, his book appeared just after my dissertation was published in 1971. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whose analyses are sharper.
Readers of these Chronicles will recall that I have long preferred Sartre to the more “profound” Heidegger, and even Sartre’s deliquescent Marxism to Heidegger’s halfhearted but unrepentant Nazism. It is curious that both he and I chose Flaubert as our primary literary model. Sartre had long been intrigued by the great bourgeois anti-bourgeois, and had long anticipated this magnum opus that he was never to complete. Like Sartre, I too had planned (back in the 60s when there was no reigning dogmatism in the humanities and one had to work out one’s own approach) to discuss Flaubert’s complete works, so much less voluminous than those of Balzac or Zola: three novels, a book of four contes, and a “closet drama” published in his lifetime, plus the juvenilia and the posthumous Bouvard et Pécuchet.
And I too, for more modest reasons than Sartre’s (that is, to get my PhD in a reasonable amount of time), had to stop before reaching the major works, in my case, even before the end of the early ones—to which I had devoted a chapter, cut from my dissertation, that some future thésard may perhaps choose to examine, assuming it isn’t all tossed in the incinerator upon my demise. Above all, Sartre chose as Flaubert’s implicit motto the phrase qui perd gagne, who loses, wins, or simply, the loser wins. Which concerns me less as an explanation of Flaubert, whose quasi-epileptic attack in 1843 allowed him to escape the legal career anticipated by his family and devote himself to literature, than of my own career, which has been marked by no great formative crises, but which I can say in all honesty has, at least so far, been that of what our president would call a loser.
Which should yet perhaps be considered a sign of victory.
There is nothing more romantic than the claim enunciated in the first sentence of Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau’s swan song, unpublished at his death in 1778:
Me voici donc seul sur la terre, n’ayant plus de frère, de prochain, d’ami, de société que moi-même. Le plus sociable & le plus aimant des humains en a été proscrit par un accord unanime.
Here I am then alone in the world, having no longer brother, fellow, friend, acquaintance other than myself. The most sociable and the most loving of humans has been banished from their midst by unanimous agreement.
What makes Rousseau the prophet of Romanticism and of the modern ego generally is his remarkable ability, although he was at the time one of the most famous men in Europe and nowhere near the Bastille, to actually think of himself as what René Girard called a victime émissaire. Interestingly, Girard never seemed to care for this passage, no doubt because it held ambiguities not easily resolved by the vérité romanesque that attends similar passages in Dostoevski’s Notes from Underground. For Dostoevsky knows what Girard knows, indeed, was one of his instructors, whereas Rousseau ignores it, deliberately or otherwise, yet can nonetheless not simply be denounced as a peddler of le mensonge romantique. Call it a Christ-complex, if you like. But in my case, and I think not so much for me personally as for the central and to my mind world-historically significant idea that the originary hypothesis represents, I continue to believe that “banishment” is, on the one hand, a sign less of universal hostility than of incomprehension, and on the other, a proof of validity.
2. Victimary Religion
The persistence of the victimary phenomenon that I have been denouncing for so long—to his visceral opposition to which our current president, whatever you may think of him, owes his victory as well as whatever chance this country has to maintain our national status in the world and the whole “global” liberal-democratic complex that depends on it, whose triumph in 1989-91 appears more Pyrrhic every year—only confirms my conviction that unless GA, in its “minimal” simplicity, can one day be understood by our intelligentsia, our civilization will not be able to maintain itself, and will give way to something far more regimented and confining, on the order of China, Turkey, and Iran, if not to nuclear extinction.
All of which leads me to insist that, although my ideas are anything but apocalyptic, and their survival at their present level is something of a miracle, even if they remain in the shadow of “mimetic theory,” we should retain our hope that they are more than a footnote to intellectual history, but destined to be recognized as necessary components of any future anthropology. Or at the very least, that they point the way to the only possible solution, one not taken for reasons beyond the power of ideas to control.
Let me put it in the simplest terms. The “most advanced” religion shares GA’s minimal simplicity. Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος : in the beginning was the Logos, which is usually translated “the Word,” but which simply means “the utterance.” Is that not exactly the substance of the originary hypothesis? “The beginning” may be for all we know the very inception of the universe, although physicists find it more useful to conceive of “time” as beginning, or rebeginning, 13.8 billion years ago. All we know is that we couldn’t “know” anything before we had language. And that language was from the outset a shared mode of communication.
One can go on from there to construct the evolution of the declarative sentence, and alternative theories of its emergence are certainly possible, but the originary moment of the ostensive as the deferral of our appropriative “instinct” is both impossible to deny and easy enough to grasp, and yet it has zero purchase on the world’s intellectual life, as though such matters were not really of interest when we can discuss anatomy and physiology and neurology and artificial intelligence.
Perhaps the one further step that we might take, one that we will hopefully have the time to explore and perhaps even the chance to demonstrate its timeliness, is to forget about what we have always been taught about “religion” and return to our originary hypothesis for a renewed understanding of how this category has been transformed in the modern age. It is no accident that, in the West that has inherited the Hebrew One God, “religion” is always associated with the idea of God. But religion, whether we believe that “God exists” or not, is about humanity. This is something that even the most pious believer cannot deny. God doesn’t have a religion; even Jesus cannot be called a “believer.” Which suggests that religions “without God” are just as much religions as the others, even if their historical record is hardly illustrious.
How can this reflection help us to understand the problem of victimary thinking, or PC? How worrisome is it that one can find comically pathological examples of its application to essentially every “normal” behavior of modern society? What indeed are the originary roots of the victimary?
At first glance, there are no “victims” in the originary scene; by deferring their acts of appropriation, all are equal and, precisely, there is no longer an Alpha and then a Beta and a Gamma… to dominate the rest. But the key attitude that presides over the emission of the sign is not some Sartrian celebration of liberty; it is resentment. Each fears to become the target of the resentment of the others, and the ultimate resolution that leads to a satisfactorily peaceful solution is that the central being itself becomes the object of the resentment of all. The sparagmos is a “feeding frenzy,” but it is also an act of revenge on the animal that had acquired from the group the strength to prevent, for a time, any individual participant from touching it.
The same prevalence of resentment applies to the life of primitive egalitarian societies. Field anthropologists remark on the frequency of murder and other forms of violence in these societies, of spells cast on neighbors and long-lasting feuds. We need ever so often to disabuse ourselves of Rousseau’s idyllic portrayal of la société commencée in order to recall that human equality exists more as a state whose absence we resent and any deviation from which to our detriment excites our anger, than as a shared experience of communal bliss. The ritual repetition of the originary event in the context of a festive celebration reinforces the community’s “solidarity” precisely by drowning out our everyday resentment in the egalitarian excess of the festivities; this experience is as real today as it was among our earliest ancestors.
To say that resentment is as old as humanity is not to express Schopenhauerian despair; it is simply to make clear that love is better described as the overcoming of resentment than the other way around. But neither does it suffice to explain the historical specificity of the current moment.
Perhaps we can take our clue from the fascinating document dealt with in Chronicle 563 that classifies mathematics as an example of Whiteness (forgetting about the “prejudice” that Asians are “good at math”). How can one possibly take such nonsense seriously? But precisely because mathematics is so essential to the technological world and even more central to the digital one, the fact that proficiency in it is not equally distributed among the races poses a “problem.” The author doesn’t even claim that minority inferiority in math is the result of oppression, merely that since whites do better in math than “minorities,” any emphasis on math is oppressive. Nor does she make the claim that we should honor athletic ability equally with math ability, or even that minority talents should be sought out to even the balance. Her one point is that studying math perpetuates a sense of inferiority among those who do poorly in it and thus contributes to the affirmation of white privilege. Whether studying math is a useful preparation for one’s future career is not considered; the important thing is not to be exposed to what I would call ascriptive humiliation.
This is a classic example of “the soft racism of low expectations,” one that will surely do nothing to close the achievement gap among the races, just as the whole affirmative action world of the universities and beyond only reinforces the idea, which must be infuriating to those who actually could compete regardless of race, that minority members who succeed must have benefited from special treatment. But if human culture is primarily a means to minimize the disturbance created by resentment, what the victimary culture is reacting to is that a strict meritocracy generates more resentment than one that pays blackmail to those who complain of racial oppression and all its related ills (see my “Originary Democracy and the Critique of Pure Fairness” in The Democratic Experience and Political Violence, ed. David Rapoport and Leonard Weinberg, London: Frank Cass, 2001, 308-24). And this culture can defend its sense of moral superiority, however absurd from the “objective” standpoint of the familiar Nazi-Jew / master-slave model, by arguing that, precisely, rational arguments for meritocracy, even of the most sophisticated Rawlsian kind, fail to address what is really the central function of human culture, which is the deferral of resentment.
That many “whites” enthusiastically embrace their White Guilt and joyfully accuse their racial fellows of racism for daring to differ from them is not pretty, but to make this point is not really to refute their position. Their arrogance is based on the undoubted fact that they have a better intuitive understanding of the “end of culture” than those who would rationalize social privilege as a just recompense for one’s contribution to society.
Not that the meritocracy need be scrapped; on the contrary. But paying a bit of hush money is often the more profitable course, and if it makes the society run more smoothly, how can one really argue against it? Yet the more widely the “cynical” view I am expressing here is proclaimed, the greater would be the resentment of those who would be forced to see their benefits as the result of extortion—Mau-Mauing the flak-catchers, as Tom Wolfe called it a few decades ago, in perhaps his most memorable neologism.
An analogous phenomenon occurs on the international level in the classification of migrants as victims, whence Angela Merkel’s “instinctive” refusal to turn them away that inspired her unprecedented admission of 1.5 million “refugees” in 2015. The power of the scare-word Islamophobia need only be mentioned. Whereas ethnic minorities have been a constant element in the US and their assimilation has been, as these things go, relatively successful, this has not been the case for Muslims in Europe, leading to no-go zones, the recrudescence of antisemitism, and a split between Western Europe where White Guilt predominates and Eastern Europe, whose inhabitants feel that they have suffered enough invasions in recent history.
Yet it is easy enough for our “social justice warriors” to justify all this by reference to the model of human moral equality embodied in the originary event and maintained in the distribution system of primitive cultures, and in moral principle, in all cultures. Firstness, as opposed to reciprocity, has no “instinctive” roots in our consciousness/scene of representation. Hence what victimary thinking continually discovers is that, rhetorically at least, no cultural norm is invulnerable to the victimary critique, even the teaching of mathematics or common politeness or correct grammar. And the obscene proliferation of four-letter words in today’s speech is as clear an indication of the generalization of victimary resentment as we need. Whether or not speaking politely is a micro-aggression against the uncouth, speaking scatologically is an aggression against the very existence of norms, one that no longer shocks (save those of my generation) but which for that very reason has taken on the frustrated rage of binge-drinking or drug addiction. (I recommend the 2011 film Bridesmaids to those who might doubt this, although there may well be better, more recent examples.)
Let us then return to the subject of religion.
Since the days of Robespierre, the promotion of the moral model, the return to our originary state of universal reciprocity, has become an ur-religion that has no doubt caused more death and destruction than all the other religions in history. If our wise intellectuals tell us that “God is not Good,” that God is a “delusion” and a “failed hypothesis,” they have nothing to tell us about the disasters provoked by their own “secular” belief-system. It is ironic that the atheists of our era are in agreement with the most extreme fundamentalists in understanding religion as primarily a cosmology rather than an anthropology.
Once all norms are put into question, tautologically accused of perpetuating the present system defined in the usual Nazi-Jew mode, we return to the originary “mimetic crisis” that provoked the inauguration of language and culture. But language having already been invented, we have no comparable new resource available to find our way out of Rawls’ “original position.” The reestablishment of generally acceptable norms can only be enforced by a consensus that can resist the victimary critique without simply denying the legitimacy of the “victims’” resentments. The United States is in this respect in a far healthier situation than Western Europe, and, forgive me for saying it, there is no leader in Western Europe comparable to Trump, as Thatcher and John Paul II were to Reagan. All they have are center-left politicians and a left-of-center pope.
The cult of originary equality is the most pernicious of religions because it is founded on the crudest interpretation of our fundamental truth, which is that sharing language gives us all an equal right to use it. But if language were reduced to the imperatives of fear and desire, and we could not evaluate truth in propositional language, humanity would never have evolved beyond its primitive state.
Once we recognize that the appeal to originary equality is as much a religion as the others, and that its apparent atheism only masks a faith more absurd than any other—that our moral equality in sharing the ostensive guarantees the cognitive equality of our declaratives—the victimary religion appears in the light of day as thuggish as the ideology of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which featured adolescents beating and torturing their teachers to death for counter-revolutionary “crimes” little different from those of today.
Yet I still have hope that the US and a few of its saner allies can reeducate the rest of the civilized world to this truth, before our global society is forced to choose between the barbarities of Salafist fanaticism and the Brave New World of Chinese totalitarianism.