As I’m sure readers of these Chronicles have noticed, it is difficult to write about the victimary without falling into a resentful tone that sheds more heat than light on the subject. What this tone expresses is frustration at not being able to argue for one’s position. If someone says that mathematics is “white,” or that he is “offended” by my saying “niggardly,” or that “Trump is a white supremacist,” or that a “woman” with a penis can use the ladies’ shower, on what grounds can one argue about it?
At the time of London’s Crystal Palace, Dostoevsky’s “2+2=5” (from Notes from Underground) expressed a paradoxical frustration with the rational, which I have tried to explain as frustration with the metaphysical misunderstanding of originary language that makes modern rationalism incapable of rethinking the sacred in anthropological terms.
But today, it’s not 2+2=5, it’s 2+2=whatever. Because if you care what the answer is, you’re “white.” How does one argue with that?
Yet if GA is a genuine contribution to anthropology, it must be able to reveal the originary vision behind the victimary absurdities that, like Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum (or if you prefer, “Scandal to the Jews, folly to the pagans”), depend on an implicit theory of human language origin prior to the almost-paradox-proof reasonings of logic and mathematics. And on this plane, there is no need to point out absurdities. For, to echo the Existentialists of bygone days, the universe as such is “absurd”: there is no conceivable explanation of why there are things rather than nothing.
The originary hypothesis provides in principle a basis for the “Western” theology of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, as well as for the Islamic, deistic, and atheistic reactions to them. But we have only scratched the surface of the theologies less familiar to us. As I was able to sketch out in my very limited analysis of the Buddhist conception of the “empty” originary scene (see Chronicles 515–516), the originary event can be interpreted as a model for social action in other ways than ours. And as I suggested in those Chronicles, even if there is no going back from the modern world inaugurated by the West, our widespread “therapeutic” use of Buddhist techniques of meditation and self-mastery suggests that this vision of the originary scene can indeed be grafted onto the more active Western version.
Nor is there any reason to claim that our therapeutic Buddhism is unfaithful to the spirit of its religious sources. Indeed, if its sole purpose were to turn our minds away from the illusions of the real world toward Nirvana, how then can we explain the striking adaptability, beginning in Japan’s Meiji era, of East Asian cultures to the modern market system, far surpassing that of other non-Western cultures, and indeed, of just about all non-Protestant Western cultures?
What then does GA tell us about the originary theology implicit in victimary thinking?
It was something of a surprise for me to realize that this theology does not attribute to the egalitarian-reciprocal “moral model” that is the basis of the victimary ideology an originary reality. This model is, on the contrary, an ideal presented as antithetical to the victimary conception of this reality, for which language is from the outset a deferral of an always-already lost plenitude, and in social terms, a tool of oppression.
To say that language is always-already écriture is not merely to claim in paradoxical fashion that writing precedes speech. The history of the term écriture in modern French criticism makes clear its more openly sinister connotation. In 1953, Roland Barthes’ Le degré zéro de l’écriture, generally considered the first work of postwar nouvelle critique, was an attack on Stalinism and its 1984-like distortion of reality by presenting its presuppositions as empirical judgments. If Pravda or L’Humanité described, e.g., a given American act as one of “imperialist aggression,” there was no need to demonstrate the truth of this assertion; that America was imperialist was a given of Communist écriture, which the French used to call la langue de bois.
Barthes generalized this demystification to more subtle rhetorical techniques. As his title suggests, he had hopes of encouraging the “zero degree,” unscripted writing that he saw exemplified in Albert Camus’ L’étranger. But the degré zéro was a wan hope in a universe that Barthes felt to be saturated by écriture. As would also be the case a few years later with François Truffaut’s notorious denunciation of the cinéma de papa, these were no doubt the last French intellectuals who saw the danger to free thought as coming from the Left.
Thus the post-structuralist claim that language is “always already” writing is not, as in GA’s model, an effect of its deferring/stepping back from instinct, and consequently from nature’s red-in-tooth-and-claw hierarchy, to the human assertion of a reflective equality. For the anthropology of the originary hypothesis, this essential moral equality is prior in human terms to any differentiation of ability and status; firstness is for the moment wholly absorbed into the reciprocity of the moral model, and can emerge as a factor in its own right only once this principle has been made sacred. For victimary thought, on the contrary, the différance that separates the subject from its mental content is dissimulated by the official theocentric view, in which an always-already hierarchical society justifies its inequality through the apparent evidence of presence.
Jacques Derrida’s argument against “logocentrism” is that the language of Western metaphysics presents itself as guaranteed by the immediate presence of its signified to the subject’s intuition. To say that language is always already deferral, différance, écriture, is to say that it has no intrinsic authenticity, that like the Stalinist écriture denounced by Barthes, it presupposes an invidious moral comparison by which the oppressor dominates his victim. Whence the pairs of differentially valued terms like white-black, male-female, European-Oriental, heterosexual-homosexual… that demonstrate the discriminatory nature of what are presented as “objective” differences. Derrida described the supposedly symmetrical “classical” philosophical opposition as in fact “…une hiérarchie violente. Un des deux termes commande l’autre…” […a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms dominates the other…”], Positions, Minuit, 1972, 56-57.)
Thus in the perspective of victimary ideology, “whiteness,” equated with unmarked objectivity, dominates the markedness of other races. This dichotomous marking is prior to language; it is founded in the law of the jungle, which for victimary theology has never been undone, but which language/écriture allows the dominant to pass off as objective fact, guaranteed by the egalitarian morality implicit in language as if it were the unmediated intuition of mutual presence.
We can sum up the difference between our two originary theologies as follows:
- GA sees the human as in the first place the triumph of moral reciprocity over “natural” hierarchy, such that human firstness can be accommodated in the social order only once the solidarity of the human community has been assured by the moral model established in the reciprocal exchange of the originary sign representing the central divinity.
- Victimary ideology understands the central divinity of the originary scene not as a transcendent being standing above the humans symmetrically arrayed on the periphery of the circle, but as a fictional placeholder for a human sovereign, who, even if he does not already exist as such, is implicit in the centrality of the scenic structure.
One can dispute in what sense if at all the biblical episode of the Fall makes reference to the beginnings of sedentary agriculture, hence of the emergence of the “big man” and the end of egalitarian society (Adam’s extra-Edenic community is from the outset agricultural), but the central point of the Genesis story is that the original humans came into the world without sin.
No doubt, even if social hierarchy had to await the prior existence of a “surplus” that became the measure of human differences, the fact remains that sin, as man’s underlying capacity to unjustly valorize these differences, becomes possible as soon as the sacred, by bringing peace to the social order, permits individuals to “think for themselves,” with or without the services of the snake. Once humans become capable of sharing representations, these cannot remain confined to the collective framework of ritual; each individual must possess his own scene of representation, and with it, the opportunity to turn it to sinful or virtuous ends.
Nevertheless, the fundamental insight of the biblical account is in agreement with the originary hypothesis: that the originary human community is equal before God, and that the origin of sin is not resentment among humans (although, as I attempted to show in Chronicle 419, the tacitly asymmetrical role of Eve is, significantly enough, made the source of “man’s first disobedience”) but of God himself. No doubt our contemporary Voltaireans would reject such theological reasoning, but the gap between theological and social-scientific anthropology, however vast as instruments for dealing with empirical data, vanishes to nothing at the scene of origin. We need not talk about God and sin; it suffices to construct a hypothetical originary event.
Nor need we claim a state of perfect peace and innocence at the outset. The originary hypothesis is a model, like a circle defined by an equation in contrast with one drawn on the blackboard. But whatever the details of the real events, their conceptualization in an originary model of human equality cannot contain essential disequilibria. We can cite in confirmation of this judgment John Rawls’ “original position.” This is a pure thought-experiment, impossible even to imagine in concrete terms, but which Rawls understood was conceptually indispensable as the basis of any “theory of justice” that would affirm that “all men are created equal.”
Marxism too is grounded on the knowledge that the earliest societies were egalitarian, and that “exploitation” began with the institution of private ownership of the means of production, for which the labor was performed by serfs or slaves, and later by “free” wage labor. There is nonetheless an ambivalence in the relationship between primitive and mature communism. Marx’s vision of the final state, even if we dismiss the whimsical details of hunting in the morning and fishing in the afternoon, implies a Phalanstère-like preestablished harmony between individual desire and social utility that his economic theory in no way supports. Even if we accept his version of the collapse of “capitalism,” the “withering away” without further explanation of the state and the subordinate institutions that maintain the domination of the capitalist class magically translates what is in fact a psychological state of non-hierarchical participation into a set of economic practices.
The most plausible analogy is in fact with the original Israeli kibbutzim. All the healthy, intelligent, enthusiastic volunteers are ready to do any kind of work, and to enjoy it in the spirit of cooperation, an attitude grounded in a prior sense of community—not imposed as in the USSR by commissars standing beside the economic system proper and “guiding” it in the transcendent interest of the proletariat—but one that could not be maintained much beyond the first kibbutz generation.
Eschatological thought-structures like the Eternal Return or the Last Judgment are ways of conceptualizing a reconciliation between human freedom, which is also the capacity for human firstness, and the transcendental unity of the human community. There is no pathos when ants give their lives to protect the anthill, because, unlike each human, each ant is not a microcosm of the whole. Which is just a florid way of saying that ants do not have language (and let’s not argue about whether their complex system of chemical signals is a “language,” at least not until an ant composes a poem in it).
Derrida was right to see in deferral a falling-away from “ideal” unity, save that this ideal is a purely mechanical, non-spiritual—and non-human—construct. The deferral constitutive of language can indeed be shared and reciprocally exchanged, but not as a mechanism in which each plays a fixed role, like cogs in a clock. Human ritual, let alone freely spoken language, is not an automatism, but a discipline.
Thus to maintain Rousseau’s and metaphysics’ alleged hostility to writing as only “second-hand” language, while at the same time claiming that there really is no first-hand language, misunderstands what language is. In particular, it obscures the sense in which a model of moral equality is established through the exchange of signs in the originary event.
Why should this matter? Because the originary conception of language implicit in Derrida and the other post-structuralist thinkers as not the guarantee of the transcendental unity of the human community—despite sin, falling-away, expulsion from Eden…—but an instrument of oppression, is the foundation of the increasingly fantastic victimary belief system that the universities are in the process of unleashing on the world. It is one where ascriptive traits such as black or female are from the outset marks of oppression, while the non-ascriptive traits traditionally considered deserving of reward, such as mathematical ability or good manners, merely help perpetuate this oppression.
A utopian mode that begins from a base of originary equality to which we strive to return describes the final utopia in positive terms. Marx isn’t really being serious about hunting and fishing; what he wants to convey is a harmony between desire and action that does away with resentment. It is as though the most advanced economy would reproduce the benevolent solitude of Rousseauian société commencée, where there was enough room for everyone to do his own thing—a significant sign of how utopia was imagined in the urban nineteenth century.
In contrast, the unmentioned paradox of victimary socialism is that its imagination is entirely dystopic. It has no vision of a future “good society,” merely an ever sharper eye for the ascriptive inequalities of the current one.
As a number of black writers such as Thomas Sowell have pointed out, the people who whine about “racism” today have no idea of what real racism is. One can scarcely find a newspaper article about our world that does not make some “anti-racist” point, such as the November 30 piece in the New York Times (“The Rockettes and Race: A Very White Christmas”) that reproachfully mentions that the Radio City audience was “overwhelmingly white.” I am old enough to recall that as recently as the 1960s, as far north as Baltimore, there were many public places where blacks were not admitted. Yet the purpose of these obsessive references is to instill in us the guilty feeling that racism is still with us—indeed, if rightly understood, just as much today as it was in 1860.
The victimary is no doubt the first social movement that conceives itself as an unending work of extirpation of sin with no possibility of salvation. Such a doctrine can only function because the evils it denounces are attributed in the first place to the “system” rather than to the individuals who compose it, making the task of the penitents to denounce, not their own sins, of which they assure us they are commendably aware, but those of the benighted deplorables who deny them.
This series will conclude with an attempt to conceive a morality of firstness.