Recent Chronicles have explored GA’s roots in (French) Theory, our understanding of which benefits from including within it Girard’s thought, however marginal it was to the (left-wing) concerns of the mainstream theorists, and above all, their American disciples. In different ways, these two branches of Theory are modes of victimary thinking, hence of the Christian branch of Judeo-Christian moral thought, with Girard’s overt Christianity demonstrating by its anthropological depth and political sanity the superficiality of the others’ flirtation with the epistemology of resentment and its immanentization of the eschaton, to use a popular bit of theological jargon.
The “higher religions,” of which the Western variety has so far produced the most advanced social order as well as the most advanced technology—which in no way precludes future Eastern hegemony following the Marxist “law of unequal development”—may be understood as transcendental anthropologies designed to integrate firstness into the moral model generated by the originary scenic event. It is no accident that in Rousseau’s discourse on “The Origin of Inequality,” the exit from the mythical “state of nature” is marked by the origin of private property, corresponding to the advent of Marshall Sahlins’ “big-man.”
Rather than following the Marxist explanation of Judeo-Christian religion as an “inverted world” designed to justify the exploitation of the laboring classes by the owners of (agricultural and eventually industrial) capital, we should understand the Jewish positing of a universal God, followed by the Christian affirmation of his identity with the originary central object-victim, primarily as ways of explaining and reducing the resentments generated by the social differences required by the effective functioning of human exchange.
The decline in the ability of Western religion to counteract the “secular” epistemology of resentment has led to the current intellectual configuration in which GA, from its own perspective the summit of Theory that brings together its Christian and secular branches, remains virtually unknown, while the voices of traditional moral thinking are drowned out by increasingly fanatical forms of victimary thought in which firstness is reduced to the product of ascriptive discrimination.
What survives is what works, and as I have been forced to observe, the current victimary system, which with a bit of hyperbole we can call “victimocracy,” has shown its ability to function as the implicit ideological basis of “liberal” industrial society, as well as the increasingly explicit ideology of the Democratic Party and its “progressive” institutional base in government and industry. The victimary manifests itself in only slightly different ways in Europe, with its past of colonialism rather than chattel slavery.
Insofar as GA is a university-based mode of thought, it is particularly sensitive to the intellectual ambiance in the universities, where, as I have also noted with respect to the fight against antisemitism, GA’s analyses, whatever their intellectual value, have yet to demonstrate their political relevancy. The politicization begun in the university, which has by now infected the entire “public conversation” including the media, corporate management, elementary and secondary education… makes any overt deviation from victimary thinking dangerous for anyone financially dependent on these institutions. Conservative thought is tolerated within limits, but as the example of antisemitism shows, there is virtually no openness to “adventurous” thought, whatever its political implications, on the French Theory model.
In this context, it is understandable that organizations dedicated to Girardian thought, such as COV&R and its French version, ARM, have little interest in promoting or exploring GA, despite its Girardian roots. “Mimetic Theory,” being outside the Theory mainstream and at the same time religiously rather than philosophically inflected, has carved out a niche for itself outside of the progressive-conservative polemic over the victimary in which GA is implicated, and has no interest in risking its aura of political neutrality. Thus although I have several times quoted in these Chronicles (e.g., Chronicle 427) Girard’s quip about the “caricatural” nature of the postmodern cult of victimage, this is not an aspect of Girard’s thought that his disciples are concerned to pursue. After all, Girard’s model of human origin begins with a lynching, an act of “scapegoating” that makes it superficially compatible with victimary thought, even if Girard himself warned us that the roles of victim and persecutors can be reversed.
The extreme difference of intellectual style between GA and Donald Trump is not simply an ironic coincidence; it is a clear indication of the political irrelevance of GA at the present moment. This irrelevance has the fortunate effect of keeping GA out of the firing line of the Twitter mobs who attack non-victimary thinking. There are indeed intellectuals on Trump’s side, but even if their defense touches on some points common to GA, in particular its appreciation of the Hebrew-originated concept of the nation, they would have little use for a theory of the origin of language. Trump’s linguistic crudity is widely condemned in conservative circles, and not only by the never-Trumpers who remain blind to the implications of the political configuration that led to his election. As I have explained several times in these Chronicles, only the un-PC Trump could express firm opposition to the victimary, and it is significant that the only other of the 17 candidates in 2016 to denounce “PC” was Ben Carson, a black conservative embodiment of the Booker T. Washington formula for success in “white” society, and who has served in Trump’s cabinet from the beginning.
Writing as though Trump’s deficit of conventional respectability, his “reality-TV” personality, were factors entirely detachable from the successes of his political and economic program may get one a job with the National Review, but it is anything but a sign of socio-political astuteness, as exceptions such as Victor Davis Hanson, David P. Goldman, and Conrad Black so clearly demonstrate. This does not lessen the contrast between Trump’s intellectual style and that of these Chronicles, or for that matter, of Adam Katz’s GABlogs. The above-named pundits are first-rate minds, but we no longer live in the era where significant “public intellectuals” concern themselves with fundamental anthropological questions—an era whose apogee was in postwar Paris and whose quirkily creative tail-end was what we call French Theory.
To recognize Trump’s political significance is to reject the current extremist heritage of Theory along with its PC vulgarization. Yet the virtues of GA as Theory’s more intellectually coherent heir in no way imply potential worldly benefits, whether in the political arena or, more pertinently, in the academy. Even today, “deconstruction” still garners brownie points in social-science fields, where it adds a note of sophistication to the various modes of victimary thinking. But, ironically enough, for those who would uphold less politically biased intellectual traditions, anything like the originary hypothesis is just the opposite of what is required. My experience of 20+ years ago at the ALSC (see Chronicle 188), which had hoped to become a conservative alternative to the MLA, of being scorned as a French Theory radical for daring to refer to Girard (whose theory of tragedy I was arguing against) and to suggest a relationship between tragedy and sacrifice, is still pertinent today: “theory” is ipso facto radical; traditional values can only be maintained by means of traditional ideas.
Adam Katz’s postings on the GABlog have demonstrated GA’s capacity for arousing interest among those who bear the brunt of the academy’s current victimary prejudices, young white males unwilling to lower themselves to proclaim the white guilt required by today’s academy as compensation for their “privilege,” and who have, even if they do, great difficulty in finding decent positions in the “soft” academic fields. It should suffice to point out that the UC faculty recruitment process now requires submission of a “diversity” statement. Whereas the faculty rose up in anger at the indignity of “loyalty oaths” back in the McCarthy era, to oppose today’s yet more sinister version of the loyalty oath—communism being clearly a greater evil than “disparate impact”—is, needless to say, anathema. I can certainly identify with these young men, among whom I would no doubt find myself were I attempting to begin a university career today in anything but the most demanding scientific or professional fields.
But at this point, while we can only welcome this group’s interest in GA, it is most unclear to me how this interest can contribute to GA’s theoretical development. As someone who spent his entire career in the university, I find it difficult to conceive that anyone outside this environment would have either the training, the time, or the incentive to pursue the kind of research that the originary hypothesis and its “new way of thinking” might inspire. I would, of course, be most happy to be proved wrong.
While bewailing the decline in anthropological-theoretical interest that set in with the end of French Theory, we should not neglect to learn from its history. The turning away from the textual, which has left as a caricatural residue the current mania for condemning the use or even mention of words and expressions that suggest victimization, bears the lesson that the era in which (literary) texts, and artistic works in general, were the richest source for anthropological insights has ended. In that period, these insights reached their highest point of theoretical relevance with Girard and Derrida, which are potentially united in our “new way of thinking” that has the potential to become the point of departure for a reflection on the human that no longer finds it necessary to oppose revelation to ratiocination.
I say potential because my own work and that of my collaborators at Anthropoetics have by no means established an Organon to which future adepts of GA need only refer. And this would be impossible even had we gone much farther. Knowledge today cannot be conceived in such a static framework. The point of originary anthropology is to strengthen our understanding of the capacity of the transcendental thinking made possible by linguistic and cultural representation to generate, through its self-reflection, and above all by its theorization of its “natural” environment, an ever-increasing number of degrees of freedom.
This is the real sense in which Hegel’s metaphysical vision can be “stood on its head”—in contrast to Marx’s version, which talks about freedom in a way that has led, and continues to lead, to the extremes of slavery. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” can be appreciated at its true worth if it be understood as the end of the era in which the ability to create systems of control leads thinkers and political actors to the absurd but tempting conclusion that by imposing such a system on the entire (human) universe, they will thereby “dialectically” inaugurate the “realm of freedom.” To the extent that we do have in liberal-democratic countries something of a “realm of freedom,” it is because this “world-system”—call it “capitalism” if you must—is a means of permitting the generation of un-systematic results—a point made quite well in Barton Swaim’s “Capitalism Isn’t a ‘System’” (WSJ, 12/26/19).
In this perspective, the aim of GA is not to model the future and thereby provide the basis for a movement to “reform” society, but to demonstrate the openness of the future and thereby encourage other studies of the present-and-past that would likewise reveal new avenues to explore. It is in that spirit that I insist not merely on the validity of Fukuyama’s intuition concerning the liberal-democratic order, but on the exemplarity of his error in presenting it as “the end of history.” The discovery of the “ideal” world-order is precisely the discovery of the least systematic means of peacefully allowing economy and society to function, whether on the national or, more nebulously, the international scale.
None of these reflections can solve the demographic problem faced today by the West and all advanced economies. I had at first thought to offer some reflections on what might provocatively be called our century’s “woman question”: how to permit women to participate fully in public life while at the same time maintaining a healthy birth rate. But this is only the most obvious and urgent of a whole host of questions that will continue to arise in the context of what we might come to call “biological justice”: questions of equal chances at birth that evolving techniques of gene modification will make increasingly relevant. But in our present condition, there are more urgent matters to consider, most particularly, the survival of our purportedly “best” social order in the face of an increasing number of authoritarian rivals.
As is suggested by a cursory reading of the dark originary vision of humanity implicit in the various political philosophies, and in particular in those of French Theory most familiar to us, the relationship between the moral equality implicit in language and the firstness made possible by the freedom inherent in deferred representation is no mere abstraction. It is the key to our ethical understanding—the basis not only of religious thought but of those secular modes that affect to treat religion as a mask of oppression.
We should not expect to be able to determine with any degree of certitude on what plane it is most effective to argue this point. But I think that in all our researches and studies, we should see this task as the horizon of our activity. Just like philosophy in its beginnings, GA’s ultimate horizon is ethical—to explain, to paraphrase Milton, the ways of God—of transcendence—to man.