In contemplating today’s de-humanized humanities we can only lament the era of French Theory, whose leftism was intellectual rather than thuggish, and which despite its preciosity produced works of real insight. We should not hesitate to consider Derrida a major thinker, as well as, on a slightly lower plane, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, and of course, Roland Barthes, who started it all. And it would be a mistake to exclude from this group the revolutionary anthropology of René Girard, the least “Parisian” and most down-to-earth of these thinkers—whom he and Richard Macksey played a crucial historical role in bringing together at Johns Hopkins in 1966.
Judith Butler is far from their level. But she can at least claim to be a genuine cultural theorizer. How many such can one name in the academy today? People are surely no less intelligent today than thirty years ago, but the academic culture is far stupider. Is it the Twitterati who have brought the conversation down to the level of debating the excrescences of what my readers are surely tired of hearing me label victimary thinking?
Ancient philosophy began as a series of thought-experiments seeking parallels between human experience as recorded in language and “the nature of things.” Its formalization as metaphysics was given its fundamental criterion by Parmenides’ “Way of truth,” and its method by Plato’s doctrine of the Ideas, with the Socratic elenchus as its discovery principle, focused not on external nature but on the human community and its quest for the ideal Republic. As I pointed out in “Plato and the Birth of Conceptual Thought” (Anthropoetics 2, 2; January 1997; http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/Ap0202/plato ), this purpose is guaranteed by the conviction that our sharing of such concepts as the Good demonstrates the possibility of harmony within this community, as organized by the polis—the possibility of a society untroubled by resentment, guaranteed by the transcendentality of the language that binds the community.
Where ancient philosophy expresses confidence in the ultimate unity of the human community as demonstrated by its sharing of language, modern philosophy, inaugurated by Descartes’ cogito, begins from the individual’s suspicion of this unity. Which is to say that if ancient metaphysics is fundamentally conservative, modern metaphysics is by nature radical, that is, resentful. Descartes’ resentment is tentative and not directed at the political order. He seeks to guarantee his thinking against any possible “demonic” manipulation, and finds the solution in the Cogito, that is, in the self-confirmation of the individual’s language in isolation from the community. For Descartes, this cures his resentment. But modern metaphysics has nonetheless been founded on an epistemology of resentment, whose critical application to the social order will remain a permanent feature of modernity. Language is, after all, even for the thinker isolated in his poêle, a communal phenomenon.
To put it simply, the idea of a conservative modern metaphysics is something of an oxymoron. Burke’s anti-revolutionary thought is incisive, but not as philosophy. In contrast, Kant, with his perpetual peace and categorical imperative, founded a “critical” metaphysics that sought to include in metaphysical consciousness itself, despite its exclusion of language from its purview, an understanding of its own limitations—and in that sense, anticipated this consciousness’s forthcoming deconstruction.
This suggests that the political radicalism of the “French Theory” group was not a mere fashionable gesture. It was all the more significant because the postwar nouvelle critique, exactly like its cinematic counterpart la nouvelle vague, began as a rebellion against the clichés of left-wing dogma. Like Truffaut’s famous 1954 “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” mocking the knee-jerk leftism of the post-war cinéma de qualité, Roland Barthes’ 1953 Le degré zero de l’écriture defined the écriture he sought to reduce to zero as that of revolutionary propaganda, from the French Revolution’s Père Duchesne to the Stalinist langue de bois. Yet both the post-Breathless New Wave and the later adventures of the nouvelle critique were clearly on the left, if mostly not crudely Stalinist. Burkean common sense (say, in Raymond Aron) was an antidote to its excesses, but not a source of fundamental new insights. Only by turning away from metaphysics to the extra-human guarantee of religion was Girard able to elaborate the new anthropology that would lead to GA.
The reader may object that Heidegger, who never denounced his Nazi sympathies, was far from a “man of the left,” yet deeply influenced Derrida and French Theory in general. But as I have frequently pointed out, the Nazis were “on the right” only in the sense that they were what Girard might have called the Communists’ frères ennemis. Why do we so easily forget that Nazi includes the word socialist sacred to Bernie Sanders and his friends? Heidegger, like Sartre, and like his predecessor Nietzsche, was a radical thinker, the simplest definition of which is that he accepted the epistemology of resentment inaugurated by the French Revolution, with its roots in Descartes’ systematic doubt. This is quite clear from Heidegger’s description of the bourgeois das Man’s “inauthenticity,” or of his ideas as Geplapper (babbling). As for Nietzsche, his relationship with le ressentiment—a word that he in effect reinvented—is at the very center of his philosophy.
The point of Platonic metaphysics was to bracket the question of the emergence of language within the human world so that it could unproblematically maintain its transcendental status. Once this breaks down, the paradoxes come out of the woodwork, and one either takes them on by situating them in the world inhabited by human language-users, or one keeps rubbing them together in hopes of striking new sparks. By the last decades of French Theory the flint and steel had been exhausted. Meanwhile, Girard, the one major theoretician who resisted this tendency, had acquired in COV&R a religion- and personality-centered organization that, despite Andrew McKenna’s noble effort in Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida and Deconstruction (Illinois, 1992), has not significantly interacted with the Theory world, and even today all but ignores GA.
Today, as the radical politics of French Theory is prolonged on a less exalted plane in the current generation’s predictably victimary analyses, the few remaining conservative humanists, mostly near or past retirement, resist radicalism by rejecting Theory in general. Already in the distant 20th century, I recounted in Chronicle 188 my ludicrous experience in “theorizing” at a meeting of what was then called the ALSC—in a building subsequently destroyed on 9/11.
Today the serious brainpower of the academic world has abandoned humanistic thinking for either the strictly empirical or the strictly formal. Pascal had situated what I call the anthropological world between the infinities of great and small, but his intuition of “middleness” applies to the human, not because we are half way along some objective scale or other, but because we know we are in the world, and this awareness obliges us to contrive scales with ourselves “in the middle,” whether between the cosmos and the quark, or between God and Satan.
Once we bracket the human, we can accomplish much by observing the natural world on the one hand, or by inventing formal structures on the other—either physics and biology, or math and computer science. And what remains of the humanities can no doubt benefit from either form of research. But as I think is amply demonstrated by contrasting our application of a humanist’s intuition to the problem of the origin of language with the scientific community’s numberless volumes on the subject, the result has been to accumulate much micro-observation while obscuring the very meaning of what one is seeking.
Why do humans have language? Once you enter the human sphere, you cannot avoid the question of intentionality, of purpose. And whether this purpose be that of man or of God, the difference is really one of nomenclature. If science would avoid speaking of God, then it must speak of man, or “humankind,” as the source of its own transcendence. Likewise, if we would sharpen Heidegger’s misty description of man as the “shepherd of Being,” we need a more concrete notion of this originary purposiveness, which comes down to proposing a hypothetical scene of its first appearance.
As soon as one rejects this observation as naïve and prescientific, one has in effect denied the validity of humanistic thinking, after which one might as well forget about studying human activities in a different manner from those of other creatures, or for that matter, of particles.
Is there some reason why this set of ideas should appear clear to me and to at least some of the readers of these Chronicles, but absurd to everyone else? Scandal to the Jews, folly to the pagans? Perhaps the simplest explanation is that, somewhat like those surrealist silent films which, despite their curiosity value, finally made the point that abstract estheticism had no real future in the cinema, the final phase of French Theory was the end of an era, a reductio ad absurdum of the century-long post-Cartesian project of “overcoming metaphysics” through the epistemology of resentment. This ultimate failure cast discredit on the whole domain of humanistic reflection as a source of anthropological insight. De la grammatologie is précieux and self-indulgent, but it was a serious work of thought; by the time of Glas and La carte postale, Derrida and deconstruction had degenerated into an academic cult.
GA need neither ignore the epistemology of resentment nor naively accept it, because its originary hypothesis provides an anthropological model for it: our reaction to exclusion from the sacred center, which makes it a discovery procedure for maintaining reciprocity with our fellows. But only with the French Revolution does the idea emerge that le ressentiment is the fundamental guarantee of our moral intuition, that the previously respected religious curbs on resentment are not merely onerous, but delusive means of enslaving us, the powerless, to the powerful.
In this context, GA has chosen in its anthropological conservatism the only possible path toward French Theory’s fruitful prolongation. Instead of following the Theorists down the rabbit hole of il n’y a pas de hors-texte, weaving paradoxical textiles from the metaphysical critique of metaphysics, we have constructed a hypothesis that anchors the sign, with its attendant paradoxes, in the real world whence it emerged. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte can be true only in a universe that has not simply been (phenomenologically) reduced to that of metaphysics, but one that is wholly metaphysical, which is to say that the real world of experience, which no one really wants to deny, can be connected with it only by the fiat of some cosmic power. Chassez le surnaturel, il revient au galop.
GA’s originary scene is offensive to the victimary mind as a consequence of its necessary component of firstness—including the scandalous importance it accords to male violence. It is this that corresponds to the “Jewish” element of Western history, in both its glory and the punishment suffered for it. In Christianity, this element has been preempted by Jesus, so that when communal religiosity declines, as it did after the Revolution and has done more precipitously in recent years, what remains of confession and repentance in the Church is virtue-signaling to the crowd. Even a thinker as subtle as Derrida was not deterred by the anthropological illiteracy of presenting language as from the first an instrument of manipulation, not to say oppression, in parallel with Michael Tomasello’s embarrassingly naïve conception of originary religion (see Chronicle 519). The speaker’s intentional “presence” that we are supposed to take for granted in speech as opposed to writing is that of political speech, that is, the speech of the powerful to the powerless, as though egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies had been kingships from the first.
GA cannot be accused of a similar blindness toward its fundamental intuitive source. My critique of the victimary no doubt gets its emotional fuel from resentment, but the resultant analysis of it is not a contemptuous dismissal of the “inauthentic.” GA traces victimary thinking to its source in the Christian assertion of the victim’s intrinsic innocence, even if to do so it must postulate the existence of a human being who has been supernaturally freed from “original sin.” Which for the revolutionaries at the guillotine—and Stalin’s and Hitler’s executioners—meant that their actual and surrogate victimary status cleansed them in advance of the sin of mass murder.
The “moral model” of the originary event puts the Left’s value of equality at the center of our moral consciousness. It is much more difficult to deal with the necessarily associated element of firstness, which acquires a recognized status only when what the Marxists call the accumulation of a “surplus” permits the emergence of a “big-man” within the previously egalitarian community, to be succeeded by chieftains, kings, emperors, dictators, and presidents. But it is an inevitable and not unhappy consequence of our moral equality that the deferral discovered at the origin would become the fount of individual initiative and in consequence, allow humans to differentiate themselves according to their abilities. Victimary thinking is above all a mode of denial, if not of this differentiation itself, then of any attempt to apply it in the real world. Objective criteria are denounced as “racist” if they have a “disparate impact” on a given victimary group, as though ranking were in itself a form of ascriptive discrimination.
Firstness no doubt requires inequalities, and no a priori formula determines how they are to be reconciled with our sense of moral equality. But as ”The Emperor’s New Clothes” suggests, one rule of thumb is that it is increasingly difficult to continue past the point at which the denial of reality becomes egregious. I won’t hold my breath, but I sense that our victimary delusions are approaching the level of mindlessness at which their burden will be felt as more than “symbolic.” This gives me hope that they will ultimately be rejected, not just by us benighted “deplorables” who have retained our common sense, but by the very elites currently falling all over themselves in their zeal to “signal” their “virtue.” The day of reckoning cannot come too soon.
En attendant, the phenomenon of firstness deserves more concentrated attention than I have heretofore given it. I hope to remedy this shortly.