In Chronicle 640 I pointed out the paradoxical impossibility of discoursing objectively about antisemitism, given that the mere fact of discussing it implies the “election” of the Jews that is its cause. Whence on the one hand, the insistence of antisemites that the Jews “exploit” the Holocaust and their readiness to compare the Israeli army to the SS, and on the other, the reluctance of Jews to accept any explanation of antisemitism that might make it appear “reasonable.”
But the centrality of the Jews to the matter of firstness suggests that GA itself is subject to the same paradox—it cannot avoid arousing the hostility that the attempt to describe the first event generates. This parallel should afford us the strength to overcome the discouragement of public invisibility, particularly given the devastating effect of the “new media” on the moral standing of visibility. How far we are today from the innocent time when we bewailed the popularity of cat videos.
This paradoxical effect is of the very essence of the human, and the fact of provoking it is the very signature of anthropological significance—precisely in contrast with the criterion of logical consistency characteristic of metaphysics and the sciences that derive from it. If Western Civilization combines the Greek with the Hebrew, it should not be to the detriment of the second, and Girard was right to insist on the greater originarity of the Hebrew contribution, without whose substance—the unity of the sacred—the Greek could never have emerged—the proof being precisely that metaphysics, as I have insisted, depends on denying the pertinence of the anthropological origin of language. This is not to say that the Athenians learned their wisdom from the Jews, merely that the transcendental revelations of the Torah embody a self-knowledge that must have preceded Parmenides’ insight into the distinction between truth and opinion. Human language is the locus of revelation of the transcendental, and treating it as always-already existing is possible only after we have conceived it as the product of a single anthropomorphic will.
Historically, the Hebrews’ religious firstness and that of Greek metaphysics were complementary modes of liberation from what Voegelin called the “compactness” of archaic society, where the original usurpation of the scenic/sacred center by the “big-man” had evolved into a hierarchical mediation of the individual’s relationship to the sacred by a god/king—mutatis mutandis not all that different in spirit from the Führer-worshiping totalitarian regimes we have known for a century. As Seth Sanders’ The Invention of Hebrew (Illinois, 2011) makes clear, the Hebrew polity stood out, in the first place, by its high degree of literacy, as reflected in the use of an easily learned alphabet, and by its non-hierarchical relation to the sacred. The Hebrew God did not address his revelations to a priest-king, but to the Hebrew people as a whole—just as the metaphysics formalized by Parmenides and Plato, also within an exceptionally literate society, sought the source of truth in everyday language and its logic rather than political authority.
GA too is an exoteric doctrine; although its details are open to modification, as occurred for example when Adam Katz introduced the notion of originary firstness, its fundamental constituents of mimetic desire and deferral would be difficult to contest without denying the pertinence of any “minimal hypothesis,” which is to say, rejecting the very possibility of a fundamental anthropology.
The era of French Theory, when scholars were paid to spend a good number of man-hours on tasks of literary analysis that were at best pseudo-scientific (remember Barthes’ S/Z?) reflected what now appears to have been a fleeting moment of academic history. Along with college attendance, Humanities departments had greatly expanded after WWII, whose near-apocalyptic aspect had given birth to a “postmodern” era in which thinkers sought a more—intellectually, if not politically—radical escape than Marxism, let alone Nazism, from Nietzsche’s “prison-house of language.”
This development, in its attachment to literary-paradoxical rather than logical discourse, can be understood from GA’s perspective as seeking to get beyond sterile Jew-Greek opposition by recognizing, as Girard alone was not afraid to assert explicitly, the historical priority of the religious element. But in contrast to GA’s search to fulfill French Theory by seeking the common root of the scientific and the “literary,” the metaphysical and the religious, the mainstream of this movement preferred to “deconstruct” what it had grasped as the sub-rational basis of metaphysics rather than tracing it back to originary anthropology. Whence its use of the seminal concept of deferral as a tool for debunking an exploitative rational order, rather than grasping its link to Sartre’s néant and the conception of originary human freedom.
As a result, the academic world has been able to slough off the literary-paradoxical skin of Theory and divide its energies between two forms of positive research: (1) a dogmatic historical radicalism hostile to “Western imperialism” and all forms of Western-perpetrated oppression, as exemplified by Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the US, and more recently by the New York Times’ “1619 Project” purporting to demonstrate the centrality of slavery to American history; and (2) a rigorously delimited empirical social science, as typified by the last twenty years’ research into the origin of language.
The very conception of a generative event of the origin of language is dismissed as “non-falsifiable.” Instead, the forest gives way to a vast assortment of trees. Not the least relevant explanation of the accumulation of mini-hypotheses concerning ape grooming behavior, the brain’s cognitive functions, the physics of the vocal tract, the economics of hominid and hominin society, etc., is the fact that the assignment of work (and research grants) to dozens or hundreds of researchers requires a large number of concrete, specific tasks involving verifiable expertise.
As for the decline of the Humanities as the homeland of Theory, the cultural domain, the traditional center of “liberal arts” education, has lost much of its luster in today’s global world. In just the past two decades, the European language departments at UCLA, once a distinguished group indeed, have been drastically shrunk (attrited) and are now in the process of being amalgamated, Spanish-Portuguese and English excepted, into a single “European Languages and Transcultural Studies” department.
No doubt this is in part an effect of the increased importance of Asian cultures, whose principal national groups are well represented at UCLA. But this development has not led to a broader knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, or Indian secular and religious literature. It is not as though young people are made to read the Mahabharata, the Tale of Genji, and The Dream of the Red Chamber along with or even in the place of Homer and Shakespeare. What has occurred is rather a lessened interest in “classical” culture of any kind. Today’s hot cultural methodology is rather typified by the compilation of statistics from millions of Twitter posts.
If anything, this development should make clear to us that GA is not a methodology in the social-science sense, but a way of thinking that addresses a given object of study from the standpoint of its hypothetical connection to our minimal hypothesis of human origin. This perspective is incompatible with a one-size-fits-all approach. Deferral defines the human scene by opening it to new possibilities. Being able to step back from easy solutions makes possible the discovery of less obvious but ultimately more efficient ones. The originary event should not be viewed as a historical homunculus containing germs of (or genes for) all future developments. These developments, unpredictable at the outset, emerge in history as new spaces are liberated for them.
Empiricism may be the rule in the social sciences, but in the domain of the “history of ideas,” where in fact most discussions of political and ethical questions take place, “empirical study” means in practice tracing contemporary ideas back to Kant or Machiavelli or Aristotle or the pre-Socratics. It is worth pointing out that exploring the roots of the ideas of Aristotle and all the rest in an originary hypothesis is ultimately more falsifiable than remaining within the prison-house of metaphysics.
An domain that would greatly benefit by originary analysis is that of mimesis itself. When Girard wrote Mensonge romantique, his analyses of the structure of desire were above all attempts to make clear its mediated nature. The book’s epigraph from Scheler, L’homme possède ou un Dieu ou une idole, describes “mediation” as the sin of idolatry, but we can equally well describe it as Sartrian “bad faith.” It was not Girard’s intention to treat mediation as a quasi-instinctual drive rather than as an opening to new behaviors, helpful or harmful, sinful or saintly, loving or resentful. The very possibility of the conversion he postulates as the essence of the novelistic narrative is proof of this. The idea that the “mediator” commands our desire the way a conditioned reflex commands Pavlov’s dogs is the great error of those naïve Girardians who question the very possibility of “good mimesis.”
If Jesus could compare a sacrificial mob with the Gadarene swine, it is precisely because humans are not swine, and must not forget it. All human behavior takes place on a scene defined by deferral. Introduction of the notion of deferral does not absolve us from the need to examine human mimesis in its countless modalities. But what Girard called “mimetic theory” needs to remain faithful to its human, cultural roots rather than attempt to make itself a branch of biology.
And no doubt the mechanisms of human culture operate in the material world, and regardless of the ultimate source of transcendence, can be studied through material observation. But the most effective way of studying these mechanisms may well still be, as it was always for Girard, the examination of the masterpieces, and for that matter of the run-of-the-mill products, of human culture, where the nuances of desire and mimesis are displayed in their native habitat. No doubt, provided that one ask the right questions, we should not reject the help of big data in studying human desire in more subtle ways than in doing statistical analyses of titles. But I would caution that any attempt at quantification must be preceded by a careful reflection on precisely what, aside from objective data about words and grammatical structures, is truly measurable in esthetic experience of any kind. Perhaps music, with its “mathematical” structure and its lack of direct reference to other cultural sign-systems, would be the best place to start. I would predict, however, that whatever criteria are chosen, the essence of the esthetic experience, as of any cultural experience, is not algorithmic but paradoxical, modifying the very parameters by which we purport to measure it.
In this regard, it often seems to me that the cinema and its derivative narrative forms, what I call the screenic (“The Screenic,” in Mimetic Theory and Film. New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), are the only truly living narrative modes of our day. Although I enjoy the works of past generations, it is a long time since I have had a sense of revelation from a contemporary novel. The fact that the screenic permits the full incorporation of the actions of living beings into an artwork makes it difficult to imagine what could lead it to its dethronement by a less broadly representational mode. As for Virtual Reality as a possible next step, it is difficult to anticipate the virtues and defects of including the viewer’s perceptual presence, if not his physical reality, in the cultural scene of representation. Perhaps the experience of moving among characters one cannot—or can?—physically touch, objects one cannot—or can?—manipulate, would provide new insights into our human essence; I, or my descendants, will have to see it to believe it. I find it easy to believe, on the other hand, that such practices may well constitute the ultimate form of pornography, sexual but also aggressive, as we already see in video gaming.
From the outset, GA’s most challenging task has been to demonstrate the complementarity of our secular and religious understandings of humanity’s place in the world. The fact that such a demonstration is pragmatically impossible, given that one cannot ask either a believer or an atheist to “bracket” his belief-system and at the same time maintain his fundamental anthropological perspective—as Pascal put it, vous êtes embarqué—is a challenge, but like all the paradoxes of culture, at the same time a revelation. That we must always lack a fully neutral vocabulary in which to discuss such things is precisely the proof that it is here that we must seek the answers to our questions. And not for the mere pleasure of seeking or through a “drive” to seek, but because the act of seeking is what modifies the truth we seek and leads us to the next stage.
Hence by equating at the origin the sacred and the significant, we do not seek to annul their later differentiation, any more than that between ritual and art. But it is their prior equation that focuses our attention on the necessity of their divergence. As with that of God creates man/man creates God, their originary symmetry becomes visible only at a certain historical juncture; to conceive the creator/created dichotomy in the originary event would have been impossible. Our task is rather to attempt to conceive what in this event might have provided the opening for this distinction.
Such thinking can only be speculative, but once we have formulated a hypothesis, we have all of culture as the database within which to seek confirmation—big data indeed! This is a task that only a generative anthropology can conceive of performing, for it cannot be carried out in the absence of a hypothesis of origin, which, once formulated, has at its disposition the evidence of the whole of history to confirm or disconfirm it. In this perspective, apparently mythopoetic affirmations such as “In the beginning was the Logos” acquire a rigor unsuspected both by those who believe in them as revealed truths, and by those who read them as metaphors.