The felix culpa of humanistic anthropologies, whether theology or philosophy or generative anthropology, is that they explain things that work only because they have not been explained, and thereby contribute to disabling them. Theology does the least mischief because it exists within a preestablished religious framework, which it elucidates without seeking to reduce it to more primitive terms; when it does, we get Spinoza and Descartes, and soon after, the Enlightenment.
Which is as much as to say that I understand why GA isn’t taken seriously in academic circles, where in South Campus you follow rigorously objective procedures and, in the North, apply in quasi-rigorous fashion the politically correct absurdities acceptable to the consensus. That these two criteria bear superficially equal weight might be shocking, but society still has enough sanity to distribute the bulk of its funding to serious scientific research and a relative pittance to victimary studies.
GA fits into neither category, of course. We must accept that a humanistic anthropology must remain speculative and cannot expect or even desire to design algorithmic procedures for the study of culture. I flatter myself that over the years I have come up with a number of insights, some of which might be called “breakthroughs,” but it would be a category error to measure the originary hypothesis against Newton’s laws of motion, let alone Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Nor am I tempted by the role that Foucault designated, in a backhanded compliment to Marx and Freud, as fondateur de discours. The fondateur remains ever the master of “his” discourse, and disciples even in future generations must refer to his insights as “foundational.” What that really means is that he is a cult figure, the founder of a belief system—and in a couple of generations, as we have seen in both these cases, he is largely repudiated, and even his genuine insights deprecated.
My teacher René Girard was himself not without this tendency. I would not hold him personally to blame, but the dynamics of his thinking and its reception led to a personal focus that I hope to avoid, given that my personality is not such as to attract adulation, nor my books popularity. Fortunately, those interested in GA don’t call themselves “Gansians” on the model of Freudians and Marxists… or Girardians.
But in order to take GA beyond the fondateur stage in a substantive sense, we need to develop a clearer path from its speculative basis in the originary hypothesis to the analysis of historical phenomena.
I use the word “paradox” a great deal, and some thinkers who pride themselves on employing only les buzzwords du jour have pointed this out to me as a sign of philosophical unwokeness. Whether or not quantum mechanics is “paradoxical” is not for me to decide, although there is clearly something unsatisfactory about a theory that uses the category of “measurement” as a parameter, independently of any specific perturbation that an act of measurement has introduced. But the humanist is on more solid ground in claiming that the introduction of a system of signs to “measure” or simply to describe the human world must perturb this world in undecidable ways. Thus “supernatural” entities such as gods are introduced into the system from the outset, not, as the positivists liked to claim, as naively prescientific ways to remedy this undecidability, but in order to acknowledge that it cannot be remedied in any straightforward manner.
GA’s theory of language origin reveals in minimalistic terms the genuine anthropological content of the speculations of Vico, Comte, et al., about the early “theological” forms of thought, stripping them of their anecdotal empiricism. We call the first word the name of God, and even this is misleading in that it suggests that this “equation” has different elements on both sides, when its point is that the first word is the originary mark of the sacred, the notions of significance and sacrality being at this point indistinguishable.
Well, yes, this schema is very elegant and “minimal,” and although a distinguished professor of philosophy recently assured me that it is not at all original—itself something of a compliment as an alternative to telling me that it is either absurd or tautological—I am satisfied to stand on my record. Yet the degree to which what I call originary analysis allows us insight into the relationship in our society, seemingly less lucid than in the past, between the “personal” and the “political,” remains frustratingly opaque.
Politics is perhaps the best example of a paradoxical because necessarily self-negating or at least self-disclaiming activity. Carl Schmitt, the great “realist,” said that politics was a relation among enemies, by which he simply meant that when you have to count votes, you are no longer in the realm of reason, and can only “stand up and be counted,” the battle of the ballot box being, like chess, a peaceful version of war.
This is tantamount to saying that political arguments remain in the domain of opinion and never accede to that of truth, where there are right and wrong answers. Yet these arguments make use of reason; to seek to persuade is different from seeking to demonstrate only in its effects. When I make such an argument, I present it as though it were a mathematical proof; I don’t just say, “in my opinion…” The point is that the exact place where political debate lies between mere contestation and reasoning can itself be determined only by political rules, as in an election.
These ideas were new in ancient Athens, and societies based on debates and elections, as opposed to autocracies, have done generally quite well since the Renaissance—which term itself evokes the return of politics as much as the revival of “classical learning.” But there are moments when democratic-republican systems break down in revolution—such as Hitler’s, which began (like so many) with a perfectly legal parliamentary election. At such times, one wonders what factors have changed to perturb the functioning of the system beyond the degree at which the “passions” it arouses can be sufficiently damped to be contained within it.
The victimary phenomenon as we know it today appears to be having a deleterious effect on all democratic political systems, few if any of which seem capable any longer of functioning in the reasonably efficient manner to which the postwar era had habituated us.
It is often deplored that so much of our political rhetoric consists in outrage, real or feigned, targeted at outrages whose outrageousness the media flaunt before the eye of the beholder. And it is anything but an accident that President Trump himself deliberately makes outrageous statements, as they say, trolling his opponents to goad them into excessive reactions. This has led certain pundits of the never-Trump variety, standing above the fray like Molière’s maître de philosophie, to deplore the “personalization” of politics “on both sides.”
I disagree with this pseudo-Girardian symmetry—which in the case of Molière’s philosopher, Girard debunks, not without giving the reader some reason to accuse him of the same thing. As I too might be accused, but against which accusation I believe I could defend myself. To the composers of op-ed pieces in the plague-on-both-your-houses mode, I ask why disputes in the Way of Opinion should be necessary at all when some of us are gifted with the ability to enunciate the dicta of the Way of Truth.
What is new in contemporary victimary politics is its “symbolic” and apparently unselfish nature. As opposed to traditional log-rolling, when interest groups were fairly well defined and smoke-filled rooms functioned to minimize the energy wasted in conflict among them, the virtue-signaling politics of the victimocracy, while benefiting the bureaucracy by inserting Diversity Officers at every point to insure against the further oppression of “victims,” provides no obvious advantages to most of its supporters, including the large majority of the victimary groups themselves. The symbiosis between victimocracy and the “global” economy cannot be explained on a straightforward cui bono basis, any more than can its support for causes of “justice” such as the Palestinian death-wish for Israel.
In Chronicle 598, I suggested a model for what I would now call first-phase global victimary politics in the film The Big Short, where the Ponzi scheme that led to the 2008 crash (and Obama’s election) was rooted in the heightened enforcement by Clinton and G. W. Bush of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, an affirmative action scheme for mortgage lending in minority neighborhoods. This exercise in compensatory White Guilt, more benign than most, nonetheless started a chain of events that led to a major recession.
It bears remarking that although bear-marketers today warn us of an impending repetition of this threat, the signature operation of victimocracy, which only came into its own under the Obama administration, has radically changed its form. It is no doubt characteristic of victimocracy that it is based so much on image rather than substance that it can operate such a change without anyone becoming clearly aware of it, not even its implementers.
Thus we may compare the CRA’s obliging banks to lend “fairly” in minority neighborhoods to a typical example of full-fledged victimocracy, Arne Duncan’s 2014 directive, recently recommended for rescission by the Federal School Safety Commission appointed by Trump after February’s Parkland school shootings, that schools not suspend a “disproportionate” number of minority students, effectively establishing a quota system for school discipline. A more blatant example of “anti-racist” racism would be harder to find.
We observe that this quota system, as opposed to that imposed on banks, involved no financial risks nor any inconvenience to anyone but the students and teachers of disproportionately minority schools, where the policy was implemented by effectively letting minority delinquents disrupt classes with impunity. (“In Oklahoma City, principals told teachers not to request a suspension ‘unless there was blood.’” Jason L. Riley, “Obama’s Racial Preferences Made Schools Dangerous,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 25, 2018.) And whereas the bank program could be understood as genuinely well-intentioned, this one would appear utterly cynical, since the education that was being disrupted was precisely that of the minorities one was supposed to be helping.
And yet, to call it cynical probably misstates the case. Undoubtedly counter-productive in its results, it too was no doubt well-intentioned; but it can only be interpreted as such if we assume that officials like Mr. Duncan were so imbued with victimary ideology that they actually believed that the greater disciplinary problems of minority students were due to racial prejudice a la Bull Connor, even when carried out by largely minority personnel.
But peu importe. What matters here is the contrast, which I imagine an empirical analysis (were such a thing possible in today’s social science environment) would substantiate, between a “real” pre-2008 program that actually invested money, and a “symbolic” post-2008 program whose only effect was to make the school system still less efficient, helping to perpetuate the minorities’ underclass status that provides the victimocracy with its ideological basis. Minority children may need incentives to improve themselves by education, but minority politics maintains itself by providing their parents with incentives for resentment.
The beauty of this updated system is that not only does it cost little or nothing to implement while creating no risks to the financial system, it “progressively” does the job that Bull Connor would have done through racial coercion. That is, with no damage whatever to the “global” economy, it functions to maintain minority children in their lack of opportunity, while encouraging their worst elements.
If most Americans can still afford to remain largely indifferent to this, we might examine the growing lawlessness in countries like Brazil or in Central America, or in the Philippines before Duterte, a situation that is repeating itself in European no-go zones. The control of such areas by criminal gangs is not directly contributory to the global economy, but the rise of a complementary sub-economy, independently of possible areas of overlap (e.g., drug dealing), allows the technosphere to maintain its domination by helping to marginalize the power and influence of the middle class, whose “bourgeois” values are by nature, to the extent that this “nature” still survives, resistant to the victimocracy.
I can put myself in the shoes of a minority mother who complains that her child is bullied or simply distracted by unruly classmates whom the teacher is reluctant to discipline for fear of being accused of “discrimination.” The principal will no doubt tell her that his hands are tied because of this policy, which is after all designed to “protect” minority children. The parent may see through this, but she certainly won’t be able to provoke a headline on the front pages that cited Michael Brown’s fictive “Hands up, don’t shoot!” And I cannot imagine that a movement like Black Lives Matter would support a policy revision that would lead to increasing the number of black students suspended.
There are few paradoxes in politics more intriguing than the one I have outlined here. For those interested by Adam Katz’s proposal to find applications for GA ideas in the “disciplines,” one could hardly find a better one than developing an empirical methodology for investigating the details of how a political movement can prosper among minorities and “woke” professionals and technocrats, not forgetting suburban professional no-longer-soccer-mom #MeToo enthusiasts, by denouncing the white-privileged pathology of color-blind melting-pot society in favor of a hyper-racialized one that, while producing no material advantages for the minority underclass, gives full rein to its resentments.
Although I have not reached the point of despair, I am beginning to fear that Trump may turn out to be not even the beginning of the solution to the problem of affirming firstness in the digital era. If the Democrats return to power in 2020, I can see myself, like the Aesopian fox who told the hedgehog not to chase away the flies sucking his blood because they’d only be replaced with more bloodthirsty ones, regretting our not having elected Hillary in 2016.
Certainly what looked like a reasonable assumption of the stability of liberal democracy in Francis Fukuyama’s 1989-91 heyday (“end of history” or not) no longer appears so today. We are discovering that the old-fashioned “content of their character” values that were at the heart of the civil rights movement in the days of MLK, that had earlier presided over the foundation of the modern political world, and that had provoked the West’s abolition of slavery, can be stigmatized as “racist” by a coalition of White Guilt and victimary resentment that would impose racial quotas everywhere.
Among the few pundits I always read with respect, “Spengler” (David P. Goldman) is not only a clear thinker but remarkably well informed about the economic as well as the political world. His recent columns (e.g., “China Leapfrogs the U.S. in 5G Internet,” PJ Media, December 20, 2018) warn us that China’s challenge to the Pax Americana has gone beyond the theft of our technological and military secrets to taking its own high-tech initiatives, notably in the domain of micro-electronics and its military and economic applications. Goldman has been calling on the US to emulate the 1957 mobilization in reaction to Sputnik that led to our putting a man on the moon a dozen years later.
But those were still the days of the “great generation,” the engineers and Rosie Riveters who churned out warships and tanks and airplanes, the GIs who landed on the beaches of Normandy—and the scientists who solved the Enigma machine and beat the Nazis to the atom bomb.
An emergency program for the development of new American technology? For the benefit of the white-privileged country that massacred the Native Americans and killed off the passenger pigeon? A nation run by billionaires whose motto is “don’t be evil”? I’ll believe it when I see it.