As explained in the previous Chronicle, ever since Alain Cohen pointed me toward Watzlawick et al’s study of “pragmatic paradox,” I have viewed paradox, at first vaguely, then more fundamentally, as the Ur-concept of what I have come to describe as “humanistic anthropology.” Not as a para-logical footnote to the logical, but because what is not paradoxical is simply logical and therefore predetermined, as are the theorems of mathematics once the axioms are spelled out, and cannot therefore explain the “existential” freedom of human action guaranteed by our species’ discovery/invention of the sign and the scene.
It is the misapprehension that “reality” is logically ordered that leads, or led, metaphysicians to believe that studying concepts, really words, could reveal the “essence of reality,” whereas the real “studying” that goes on concerns not the words but their resonance in the mind, by which they call up intuitions of real-world behavior. Whence the potential of GA, a phenomenology based on an originary hypothesis, to relate anthropological concepts to the foundations established in the event/scene of origin.
Metaphysics sees the key to wisdom in being able to understand words like “Being.” This is a vice that Girard cured me of. Instead of trying to get back to the Heideggerian Ur-concepts deconstructed—but not replaced—by Derrida, GA offers a pragmatic model to which philosophical abstractions may be referred. Along these lines, despite Sartre’s present unfashionability, I contend that L’être et le néant’s “psychological” descriptions of the pour-soi and the en-soi, bad faith, etc., represent a real advance in contrast not only with classical philosophy but also with Heidegger’s “existential” mysticizing about das Sein.
But providing an originary hypothesis is only the point of departure of GA, and the fear that haunts me is that connecting its phenomenology to historically attested cultural institutions continues to prove a very difficult task for those who today must perforce conceive their projects in terms acceptable to the institutions that fund research—in contrast with the diminishing numbers of those of us whose (tenured) professor’s salaries had sufficed to permit them to concoct ideas sitting at their computers.
Although no one is giving out grants to study paradox, elucidating its intrinsic connection with human culture, a project central to the New Criticism, now deprecated in favor of endless iterations of Cultural Marxism, is particularly urgent today as the accelerating degeneration of our common culture daily makes clearer its bankruptcy as a mode of human self-understanding. The sanity of common sense that we have lost can be restored only through a renewal of this understanding; “turning back the clock” is not an option.
As an object of intellectual puzzlement—for which I am happy to second Matthew Taylor’s recommendation of Nicholas Falletta’s The Paradoxicon (Wiley, 1983)—paradox is a catchall word for the real or apparent self-contradictions hidden within seemingly rational systems, where straightforward definitions lead to unexpected outcomes—as in the St. Petersburg paradox, a betting scheme in which each single turn has an “infinite” expectation of gain.
But the human context of paradox goes far deeper than mathematical games. In a comparison between Zeno’s paradoxes of motion and the Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna’s argument purporting to demonstrate the impossibility of any sentence’s conveying a real-world truth (in Chronicles 515–516), I proposed that we should view Zeno’s challenges to common-sense views of motion, quantity, etc., as pointing to the need for a more precise conceptualization/notation, such as would be supplied in the 17th century by calculus. In contrast, Nagarjuna’s point was rather to demonstrate the impossibility of precise worldly language, as prefatory to recognizing the illusory nature of the concern with worldly as opposed to transcendental experience. We need not share these Buddhist views to recognize that it is Nagarjuna rather than Zeno who anticipates the paradoxical de-constructions of Western post-metaphysical thought.
The underlying fascination of paradox lies in its inevitability in any attempt to re-present reality. Nor does the problem go away now that philosophers have put the “R-word” on the no-no list; whatever one claims language or any other sign-system does, it cannot avoid the danger of unwanted self-reference, the confusion of layers of meaning.
The simplest illustration of this is that a map of a given territory cannot include a representation of itself without falling into infinite regression. But in more culturally relevant terms, the same paradox is implicit in the fundamental unit of human culture, which is the scene. However much Renaissance drama, recognizing this danger, seeks to bring it into the open by offering the “play within a play,” it cannot avoid revealing/exploiting this “imperfection.”
The bottom line is that paradox is a quality of representation, and since only humans represent, paradox is a fundamental quality unique to humans. DNA doesn’t “represent” proteins even if it contains codes for constructing them. Only humans re-present, and the German Darstellen, meaning “putting there,” no doubt the model for Heidegger’s Dasein, “being there,” reflects the scenic nature of language as a deferral of physical appropriation, placing its object on a scene that derives ultimately from the participatory scene of ritual distribution.
Decades of “animal-friendly” analyses of intelligence should not obscure our absolute difference in this regard from, as far as we know, the rest of the universe. A propos of this, reading magazines like Science News makes one realize the depth of the scientific denial of the Earth’s uniqueness, including not just “intelligent life” but life itself. One cannot read an article on astronomy without finding constant mentions of life: planets that might support it, elements and compounds that suggest its presence, even in our own solar system. This is the cosmic version of the humble-resentful, crybullying denials of firstness that make up our post-Christian Wokeness.
Of course I can be shown up as a Terracentric fool next week by an earthshaking discovery, but I’d be surprised if life is ever found anywhere else. This doesn’t prove the “existence of God,” but it lets us appreciate the rarity of our planet. After all, the minimal anthropic hypothesis is simply that the universe is so organized that (human) life is possible: la preuve! But we don’t know how many gazillions of universe-years and -spaces may have preceded its emergence.
We recall that in the hypothetical originary event, the sign as aborted gesture of appropriation functions to demonstrate that, although only one person can appropriate a given object, any number can attend to it, or intend it, whence the potentially peace-bringing effect of joint shared attention. But the shareability of representations does not increase that of their referents. In the originary event, no one needed or expected to appropriate the whole object in question; previously the Alpha had taken possession of the whole, but only to bite off the first piece, in contrast with the central distribution function in despotisms, where the ruler or the State takes the whole thing and doles out pieces to those it favors.
The originary function of the sacred as the source of the deferral that promises a “providential” solution to those who follow its precepts is to serve as a transcendental agent of the egalitarian “moral model,” imposing it on the members of the group without standing as itself a potential worldly rival to them: the Word “appropriates” its worldly object in such a way that it remains physically divisible among the community.
The crucial step beyond the idolatrous “compactness” of the archaic empires is the recognition that any embodiment of the sacred is by nature paradoxical and can be understood only, as the deconstructionists would say, sous rature. Thus the Hebrew One God, the minimal embodiment of the West’s active divinity, in contrast with the Nirvana-oriented sacred of South Asia or the communal spirits of China and Japan, can call himself ehyeh asher ehyeh (I am what/that I am), but may only be referred to as Hashem (the name) by his worshipers. This minimal linguistic connection, consecrating the absolute difference between God and man, suffices for the Jews without their having to dwell on it. That the Jews traditionally retain a “familial” relationship to God, as in many Talmudic passages and even in everyday “conversations,” is a paradox accepted as a transcendental reality that need not be tested by reason.
In any event, neither Judaism nor Islam—which by giving the divinity a name while interdicting physical representation, tacitly acknowledges the absence of this “familial” relation—insists on paradoxicality as an element of its worship. Nor, as far as I know, does Buddhism, which has no problem with multiple divine entities, including extra-Buddhist ones, and indeed sees divinity—defined not as being but self-extinction (Nirvana), achievement of “pure,” empty scenicity—as the aim of all spiritual beings.
Christianity is different. At first, Christianity insists on paradox (“Scandal to the Jews, folly to the pagans”), and in so doing, as Girard realized, offers itself as an ultimate, liminal religion, on the frontier of demystifying the sacred as absurdity. It imposes on its faithful the most extreme actes de foi: belief in concrete worldly “miracles,” not in illo tempore but now, in historical time, witnessed by contemporaries.
Yet, as I understand it, historical Christianity does not insist on its paradoxicality. I am no expert on Christian theology, but I do know that Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum est is not recognized as good Christian doctrine. We don’t believe because it is absurd. Because it seems absurd? Because the belief appears incompatible with common sense in a way that Judaism is not?
I would say that this half-stifled recognition of the paradoxicality of “true religion” is an anthropological revelation, one that liberates Christianity from self-indulgent “religiosity” and sets it on a path, as those can say who have followed the path a bit farther, not to “atheism,” but to what I have called anthropology in the etymological sense, human self-knowledge.
What Christianity recognizes as revealed in the Crucifixion is the inextricable connection (mediated by the Spirit) between the human and the sacred that transcends the human. The self-reflection made possible by the deferral of appetite makes us aware of (1) the peaceful reciprocity that defers mortality, yet also (2) the inevitability of our mortality nonetheless, now become an object of understanding and therefore of dread. It is this dread, Heidegger’s Sein zum Tode, that leaves us vulnerable to the temptation of the “original sin” that rejects the God-given understanding of the human condition as providential, given that we must perish in any event.
Thus in order to accept the Christian synthesis, the believer is obliged not only to accept the miracles attendant on Jesus’ birth and death—most importantly, the Resurrection—but to have faith in his own resurrection “in the flesh” in a restored Eden or Gehenna according to the verdict of the Last Judgment. And this belief, so powerfully stated in John 11:25 (“I am the resurrection and the life…”), however little it forms an element of public discourse today, has indubitably provided until very recently the motive force of Christian faith, and in a different form, of Islam as well; even Judaism has not altogether escaped the hope of an afterlife, albeit one that preserves its deniability.
Genesis tells us that it was Eve’s and Adam’s sin that made us mortal, but in anthropological, in the first place, biological terms, the contrary is obviously the case: it is awareness of our mortality that tempts us to disobey the will of the sacred to profit selfishly from our limited time on Earth.
Christian Paradox and the Next Stage of Western Culture
I have repeatedly referred to Michael Tomasello’s egregious lines about the origin of religion (quoted in Chronicle 519) because this off-the-cuff dismissal of a fundamental element of human culture on the part of a cognitive scientist who has analyzed in detail the first utterances of his child—one could hardly be farther from Roy Rappaport’s idea of the “coevality” of language and religion—is itself an anthropological revelation.
I view it as marking the endpoint of the epistemology of resentment, at the moment when it loses its resentfulness and becomes simply the new common sense, the Geplapper of our “secular” world. It does not (yet) correspond to Wokism, the current elite post-religion, but the link is clear enough. If religion is, as Marx suggested, an “inverted world” meant to dupe the exploited into accepting their exploitation in hopes of an other-worldly reward, then to reject it need not imply, as Marx and his followers thought, the end of economic exploitation. For originary scenic equality may have led to more or less equal distribution of meat, but the necessary precondition of this distribution was the symmetrical, reciprocal exchange of the sign. The magical belief of Wokism is that, once this symbolic exchange has eliminated all “privilege,” all will be as if the meat too will be distributed without “privilege.”
From the outside this looks like arrant hypocrisy; the significant element in the difference between me and a billionaire is surely not the color(s) of our skin. (And indeed, the more socialistic Wokists do want to tax billionaires more heavily.) But the Wokists are clearly onto something in effectively returning to the very origin of human society to establish what they might call originary equity. We cannot help remarking that this reliance on symbolic equality is an explicit element of Christian faith. Like the multiplied loaves and fishes, or the communion wafer, it is the infinitely shareable Word that signifies the equality and brotherhood of mankind.
Is Christianity to blame for Woke epistemology? Aren’t the Woke just being extra-good Christians, defining the one real sin as the denial of full human reciprocity?
Here is a benignly trivial example: With the lifting of COVID bans, the Santa Monica Public Library has declared that it is no longer charging fines, clearly less to alleviate the delinquents’ financial burden than to avoid any semblance of a “microaggression.”
This little bit of wokeness is a relatively harmless corollary of Soros-sponsored DAs’ not prosecuting petty criminals and/or letting them go free without bail: victimocracy. It reinterprets imitatio Christi as (white) society’s Christ-like taking on the burden of other people’s sins, not in any active sense, and certainly not in order to correct them; merely by abstractly assuming society’s responsibility for them. Of course, this leaves the actual victims of the crime, library or shoplifted store or petty theft victim, as collateral damage, like the eggs broken for Lenin’s omelet—we’re saving the criminal’s soul, let us not worry about material trivia. Particularly if we live in “safe” neighborhoods.
I don’t think Jesus would be at all happy with this version of Christianity. In fact, I imagine he would find it even more hypocritical than the “scribes and Pharisees.” Yet one cannot deny that its caricatural paradoxicality is indeed “in the spirit” of Christianity: the last shall be the first, publicans and sinners preferable to high priests, saving an adulteress from stoning… It is not to calumniate Christianity itself to observe that Wokism’s resentful flaunting of the originary moral model is rooted in Christianity’s highest aspirations—and only by a considerable extrapolation, those of Judaism, which has sagely kept God and man separated.
Viewing this process within the historical dialectic of Western religion, generative anthropology provides a lucid understanding of it, rather than rejecting it as absurd and waiting for “common sense” to take over—as does happily seem to be occurring in some extreme cases, such as the omnipresent male/transwoman swimmer whose victories are beginning to be questioned by NCAA officials as well as some (female) swimmers.
But to put Wokism behind us, we cannot simply go back to an earlier state. The return to common sense from “craziness” fails to explain the basis of the craziness, that is, fails to learn from its faulty extrapolations rather than simply condemning them. Even the most horrible moments of history must serve us as lessons. Even the Holocaust. Had the West made a greater effort to understand the Holocaust, instead of simply condemning it as an abomination (“Never again!”), it might not find it so easy today to see Israel compared with Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa.
GA, as a synthesis of the two branches of French Theory, is in a real sense a reaction to Wokism and its victimary predecessors. One of the reasons for my enthusiasm toward the Abraham Accords, Trump’s greatest international achievement, is that I cannot help thinking that a real integration of Islam within the expanded culture of the West should restore what I consider its one great strength that the West increasingly lacks: a respect for ethical order. Cutting criminals’ heads off is going too far, but canceling library fines and refusing to convict shoplifters, or as in France (and elsewhere in Europe), allowing criminal gangs to control whole cities and attack police and firemen, is not right either. The Wokist caricature of Christianity can use some counterweight.
A very long time ago I wrote the phrase: le paradoxe est antérieur à la logique: paradox is prior to logic. At the time, it seemed like a simple boutade, an intuition en l’air.
I can now give substance to this idea. If the human derives in the first place from the failure of reflexive animal mechanisms to prevent internal conflict, then this “paradoxical” breakdown is the necessary precondition of human language, which is alone capable of representing these mechanisms in logical terms. The fundamental error of metaphysics is in seeking to situate this rational capacity in the system from the beginning. For metaphysics cannot fathom the paradoxical différance that marks the transition from the “natural” to the human.