“The Pharmakos” of Plato
Suppose Plato tried to set up a dialogue with a partisan of Victimary Thinking (VT), so that Socrates could set him straight about the dangers of using “never blame the victim” as a personal and public ethic.
He would discover that philosophy/metaphysics, with its de-ostensivation of language, is no longer welcome in the agora. Although Socrates could expound the (non-indexical) meaning of The Good to refute Callicles and Thrasymachus, he couldn’t handle the Victim. Only Jesus, à la rigueur, could do it, and then only because he didn’t accept that the ostensive had been eliminated by the declarative.
The mark of the Victim is not a concrete wrong that has been done him, for this could in principle be redressed. If he can prove that he has suffered a specific wrong, he can invoke the law. Societies in which groups of people are victimized de jure, as blacks were in the Jim Crow era or Jews in the Nazi era, have victims but not Victims. The latter is a Victim not de jure but de facto; his victimage is demonstrated not by violations of the law but by disparate impact. That is, not the disparate impact of what he does, but the impact on him and his fellows of norms, such as selection examinations, imposed by the law, or simply of the micro-aggressions of everyday life. Measures of “affirmative action” counteract in part the disparate impact of the law, while demonstrating the permanence of the Victim’s victimary status.
Callicles and Thrasymachus are free agents uttering their personal convictions. Although it would be inappropriate to call Plato’s dialogues conversion narratives, Socrates engages with his opponents on a strictly conceptual plane, choosing his examples from experiences that all can be expected to share. Whether or not the interlocutors are persuaded, the reader is certainly expected to be. He is expected to follow Socrates’ reasoning as he might Euclid’s, and similarly accept its conclusions as deduced from the original premises. The modern reader may be wont to accuse the old man of some sophistical turns, but the dialogues pursue in principle the Way of Truth.
The category of Victim, in contrast, is not defined by freely chosen convictions. Although not apparently an ascriptive category like race or sex, it is not chosen by the Victim himself, nor imposed on him by acts of discrimination, but inherent in his ascriptive identity as a member of a victimary group.
Philosophical discourse in the traditional sense with the Victim is consequently impossible. Unlike the slave boy in the Meno, who is shown to “remember” geometry, which is really only to say that he is able to reason about geometry in the same way as a geometer, once given the appropriate premises, the Victim could not engage in philosophical dialogue without setting aside his victimary status. There is no way of reasoning “like a victim.”
Plato would find this unnerving. But it can be interpreted as demonstrating, not the spuriousness of Victim status, but on the contrary, the fatal flaw of philosophical argumentation, which only becomes possible upon dismissing or “bracketing” the reality of victimhood. If the Victim wants to take part in the dialogue, he must, as the French would say, “leave his victimhood in the cloakroom.”
Being a victim was not a prestigious role in the ancient world. When Christianity revealed the essential holiness of the victim, Nietzsche saw this as the triumph of “Jewish resentment,” which is certainly one way of putting it—and Max Scheler’s rebuttal (in The Man of Ressentiment, [Vom Umsturz der Werte, 1919]) claiming that Christian chivalry gives the lie to this abasement, is rather beside the point. The real point is that, from an originary standpoint, the Victim is the central figure in the scene of representation.
Deconstruction of the Laboratory
The laboratory permits the development of modern science by isolating systems so that correlations among their fundamental parameters can be determined. Even in its most primitive state, its existence depends on that of a supportive society that supplies it with peace, personnel, and equipment.
The philosophical dialogue is also a laboratory, one that can isolate itself from the rest of human existence only because its freedom is guaranteed by a sufficiently peaceful community. And in order to create that community in the first place, an Ur-laboratory must have become available, which we have called the originary scene of representation.
What makes the scene of representation a laboratory? All desires, all worldly considerations of any kind, are put aside to focus on one single significant/sacred object. This idea is the kernel of the originary hypothesis: like the hedgehog, the originary human knows One Big Thing.
The failure of our discovery of this idea to strike a spark of revelation in more than a handful of souls is simply an effect of the incongruity between our intellectual universe and that of the “first men.” I have often heard admiration expressed for Stanley Kubrick’s “originary scene” in 2001, where the bone thrown up in the air becomes a spaceship. But whatever the differences between this scene and that of the originary hypothesis, the fact remains that not even the cinema can create appropriate conditions for us to effectively put ourselves in the place of these proto-humans. We are always-already human, carrying around the portable representation laboratory that Sartre called the pour-soi. To appreciate the originary hypothesis, we need to recognize the radicality of the transition, yet without being able to fully imagine it taking place. The only point of comparison would be with religious experience, which is precisely what social scientists are obliged to put entirely out of their minds, if any was ever in them, when they enter their laboratories.
The point of these observations is to stress that the power of VT, however dubious its concrete manifestations, comes from harnessing that of originary religion, the power that Jesus realized when he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and asked why he was persecuting him.
How then has it come about precisely in our postwar era that members of victimary groups can tap into this power? I have been exploring this question for several years, less in order to denounce VT than to explain its extraordinary strength, political and simply social.
Philosophy/metaphysics cannot deal with this issue, and the political world that derives from it, that of the “Enlightenment,” has thus far shown its incapacity to resolve it without reverting to the cruder forms of the “Way of Opinion.” I have some sympathy with those respectable folks who, not wanting to choose between the crudity of “populism” and the nastiness of VT, wind up as never-Trumpers, sympathizing with the president’s aims, but anxious to disassociate themselves from the man himself and his personal flaws, as though once one makes it absolutely clear that one enthusiastically shares the victimary execration of racism, sexism, and the rest, one can then engage in a productive philosophical dialogue with the Victim.
The manifest bankruptcy of this strategy shows that it is fighting the wrong war. The Victim can never accept the role of the Socratic interlocutor; to do so would be to endorse the metaphysical system of hidden oppression that he denies in his flesh.
If asked why such arguments were not heard in the past, the Victim might reply that society has been from the beginning permeated by a hidden asymmetry, which the trauma of WWII finally revealed. He might, if sufficiently erudite, cite Derrida’s critique of the falsely neutral binary distinctions between black and white, male and female… Whence VT’s rejection of “free speech,” to which it responds with an intellectual variant of Anatole France’s boutade that both rich and poor are free to sleep under bridges. Propositional language, in its view, is not an instrument of communal cooperation, but of false symmetry and exploitation.
How was this fraud imposed in the first place? If asked to come up with a VT equivalent of GA’s originary hypothesis, the Victim might counter with a scenario where the Alpha, realizing that he could no longer dominate the group via a queue structure, would assure perpetuation of his leadership by designating a “scapegoat” group for the persecution of the majority, using falsely symmetrical binary oppositions to make it impossible for its members to complain of their fate.
But now, at last, the cat is out of the bag; the false symmetries that produce disparate impact have been exposed. Affirmative action is but a partial, overdue remedy for the hypocritical de facto oppression that has become all the more insidious now that the frank de jure form has been abolished.
It might be said that what we call the Left has always held this position, and also that it has always used language not as a means of rational persuasion, but as a weapon; the name of Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals) is often cited in this context. But this was not always the case. Certainly it would be unfair to Marx, if not to Lenin and Stalin, to claim that his arguments are mere propaganda destined to hasten the fall of “exploitative” society. Marxism proposes an optimistic self-transcendence of metaphysics, implying that no intellectual tool other than metaphysics itself is required to transcend it, once its originary material basis has been reestablished—as he put it, by setting Hegel back on his feet. Dialectical materialism is a term you are unlikely to see in the tweets of our woke Democratic Socialists.
Neither Hegel nor Marx nor their revolutionary successors attempted to trace metaphysics and its limitations to its root in the origin of language, and of the human itself. I would nonetheless say that today’s left, having discovered VT, has a clearer intuition of this origin than its traditional opponents. Which is why it is so ready to denounce “hate speech,” its term for discourse that fails to respect the victimary sacred, and is for all intents and purposes blasphemous (whence its fraternal connection with Islam)—or in our terms, falsely declarative but really ostensive. Such speech presents itself as “free” on the false premise that the scene of linguistic representation is a neutral zone of debate, rather than the locus of hidden asymmetries that it is our duty to “deconstruct.”
The Victim is a martyr-witness to his victimhood, an experience he embodies in marks of color or gender like the stigmata that Jesus is said to transmit to his holiest saints. The unmarked, “white” person confronted by a Victim is thus faced with a pragmatic paradox. He can neither ignore these stigmata nor is allowed to react to them, but must demonstrate as implicit in any unfavorable judgment he may make of their bearer his non-consideration of them as a ground of his judgment.
Fortunately, most members of victim classes do not flaunt their victimhood in everyday circumstances. It takes a special kind of self-regard to do so, and to be rewarded for one’s victimary exemplarity. But one never knows when such outbursts may occur, as for example when my old UCLA colleague Val Rust provoked a sit-in for correcting the grammar of some black students.
When Rochelle Gutierrez claimed that “math is white” (see Chronicle 563), her real point was to denounce the fallacy, from the victimary perspective, that in grammar or math or any other system of cultural signs, the objective-unmarked is “fair” and neutral. In so doing, she was defending the Victim more honestly than those who demeaningly add a few hundred points to his SAT scores. Whether or not he has to learn math, the Victim should not let his moral equality be eroded by such so-called “objective” domains of knowledge. Gutierrez was not suggesting that math should be done away with, even in minority schools, simply that, understood as an instrument of the victimizers’ world, it should not be used as a measure of personal worth—thereby insuring low math scores in perpetuity.
I have not yet lost my Fukuyaman faith in the liberal-democratic system, which if valid would put an end to a phase of history, though not of history itself. Is this system compatible with VT? So far, it has been. “Compatible” doesn’t mean without conflict, but VT has been proliferating within our democracy since WWII without as yet truly menacing the system. And although as an anthropological doctrine it is “incompatible” with it, so are communism, neo-Nazism, and Islamism, which are nevertheless openly espoused by citizens of democracies. In this regard, I was pleased to find in Victor Hanson’s column the other day (https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/01/progressive-politics-abolish-ice-tax-increases-free-college/) a reflection on the symbiosis of global wealth with VT-“progressivism” that makes some of the same points as the “United Field Theory” expounded in recent Chronicles.
But history does not stand still, and a philosophy harmless among resentful children becomes deadly when the children grow into the empowered students of the Cultural Revolution.
Salvation from the East?
The West is the land of tragic firstness, where one accepts the cruelest sacrifice to claim one’s place at the center of the scene. Our principal religion celebrates God’s agony.
Buddhism offers a release from this painful personification. Its utterly un-Western revelation is that what really matters is the scene of representation, which we all share in its emptiness, and that it is foolish to fight over, or try to agree on, what is on the scene. The propositions of metaphysics help us to understand the world, but they cannot avoid paradox and illusion; the empty scene alone does so.
Is it then a coincidence that if we are ever to be liberated from “affirmative action” and its ambition to perpetuate forever the victimary status of its putative beneficiaries—why should they learn to score as high as the unmarked if their scores will be raised in any case?—it will be as a result of actions like the lawsuit against Harvard by Asian students, who have the embarrassing quality of doing very well in “white” subjects?
As Yuri Slezkine pointed out in The Jewish Century, (Princeton, 2004) overseas Chinese have played throughout much of East Asia the “Mercurian” role of the Jews in Europe, provoking in some cases the equivalent of pogroms, as in Indonesia where the Chinese were slaughtered in 1965-66, and on a smaller scale, in 1998. But in case you hadn’t noticed, there is a small difference between the overall Jewish and Chinese populations.
There used to be a numerus clausus to permit Harvard and Co. from being overrun by Jews; today, it’s Asians. When I attended the Bronx High School of Science, it was over 80% Jewish; today, I’m sure it’s at least 50% Asian. UCLA, during my tenure there, has become more and more the University of Caucasians Lost among Asians.
The Chinese, like the Jews, are a “chosen people,” inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom that was the unquestioned center of civilization in the East Asian landmass for thousands of years. With all their ingenuity, inventing printing and gunpowder and the like, they would never have achieved a Scientific/Industrial Revolution, being, unlike the crude polyglots of the Middle East, too proud to invent an alphabet that would allow ordinary people to communicate with each other. Reading The Dream of the Red Chamber, the Chinese “novel” written not long before the French Revolution, you are transported into a universe of self-satisfied feudal refinement unlike anything we have ever known in the West.
The Jews didn’t create the Industrial Revolution, far from it; but as I pointed out in the previous Chronicle, the Judeo-Christian idea of the Nation, pluralized in what was until the first half of the twentieth century mostly peaceful competition, was a stimulus to invention and discovery—firstness—that did not exist in China.
But now that this Revolution has occurred, the Chinese and other Asians have been able to learn its techniques. At first, this was done by imitation and plagiarism, but lately, as “Spengler” (David P. Goldman) has been pointing out, they have been advancing on their own, and may well be ahead of us in 5G technology and even in space exploration (take a look on the dark side of the moon).
I don’t want to sound fatalistic, but if Hegel were working on the Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Postgeschichte, I’m sure he’d agree with me that the idea of the West with its singular, tragic Jews giving way to the East’s multiple, tranquil Chinese as the model of future “capitalist” development is the nec plus ultra of dialectic. If this is so, we should not be overly concerned at Mr. Xi’s belligerent tendencies, including his nascent partnership with Putin’s Russia. The dialectic still has a way to go, if we let it.
But whether or not Asia becomes the creative center of future world civilization, generative anthropology will have marked in its own way “the end of pre-history”: the end of the era that preceded the first serious attempt to provide a minimal hypothesis of the origin of the human and its language.