As I noted in The End of Culture (1985), menin, the first word of the Iliad and thereby of high Western culture, refers to Achilles’ “rage” at his humiliation by Agamnenon, who took Achilles’ captive Briseis in exchange for his own, the daughter of a priest of Apollo whom he was forced to return. Because Agamemnon is the leader of the Greek forces, Achilles cannot confront him to requite this humiliation; his “rage” is an example of what Nietzsche analyzed as le ressentiment: a sense of injustice that cannot be openly avenged.
The reader who is aware of this might then wonder why “the epistemology of resentment,” the reliance on this same sense of injustice as an objective source of moral justification, only appears nearly three millennia later with the French Revolution. The difference is that, as opposed to both Achilles and the participants in medieval peasant revolts, those who massacred the soldiers defending the Bastille on that famous day in 1789 were not called upon to repent.
What explains this difference between the great Achilles and the sans-culottes, whose progeny have been among the most murderous of mortals? And how did these sans-culottes, who at least had good reasons to be resentful, morph into the crybullying antiracists of our own day, who would have their instructor suspended, if not fired, for making them feel unsafe by quoting the n-word from a 19th century novel? The difference is that woke resentment is not for one’s own victimization; even when the victim’s resentment is “triggered” on his own behalf, he is in essence acting as a symbolic representative of a whole class of victims.
But we must not let the manipulative nature and apparent hypocrisy of Wokism lead us to dismiss it as unworthy of serious analysis. We should recall that the core principle of GA is that, with resentment as with language, necessity is the mother of invention. If there is a change in the operation of resentment from Achilles to our crybullies, or from the sans-culottes to the girl who brought a complaint about my Spanish teacher friend’s complimentary remarks about Columbus, this reflects some social necessity. The more apparently absurd a social phenomenon, the more urgently we must seek to uncover what made it necessary in order to diminish the level of tension in some area—even if it increase it in others, for society is complicated. Our political institutions, imperfect as they are, were designed to deal with this complexity; when they seem to break down, as at present, we are all the more obliged to seek an explanation.
For the past few decades I have sought to understand the ever-increasing power of the victimary in our society. I believe that still today, most promoters of victimary ideas truly believe, to the extent that their sincerity is worth taking into consideration, that they are on the side of virtue and not vicariously exploiting others’ resentments to benefit themselves. More precisely, their actions are apotropaic, not merely on an immediate level, for fear of pressure either from other members of the elite or from victimary activists, but more broadly, from a sense that “social justice” requires society’s especial concern.
Conservatives have been saying since 1789, and certainly since 1917, and even more certainly since 1989, you’ve been there, done that, and look how it turned out, and yet the Left is continually reborn as the party of the victimized. The amount of voluntary self-humiliation undergone by the elite and passed on to the population as a whole is painful to behold: deliberately embarrassing reformulations of vocabulary (enslaved person, even pregnant person, “what are your pronouns?”…); all presumably meant to compensate for inequities so scandalous that they justify these humiliations in the minds of those who practice them. That black people are Black and white people only white has become standard even in a conservative paper like the WSJ. Is this supposed to make up for slavery and segregation?
The UCLA (student) Bruin Film Society opens its weekly announcements with the following paragraph—followed by a set of more everyday “antiracist” statements:
|The Bruin Film Society at UCLA acknowledges our presence on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples. The struggle for Indigenous Rights affects us all, especially as students that actively utilize the resource that is their land. Bruin Film Society fully backs the Lands Back movement, which advocates for the decolonization and rematriation [sic] of all land back to their traditional caretakers. We would also like to extend this statement to the colonized and militarized island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific as well as the forcefully taken state of Hawai’i and their Native People.|
Now really, if we gave all land back to their [its?] traditional caretakers, wouldn’t we have to go back to “where we came from”? The point is always that we are the ones who must compensate for our success; it doesn’t matter which peoples had been driven out by the last people to take over the land, even if it was the Aztecs, who ate their captives. The Christian attitude is to focus on our (the West’s) sins, not those of others.
Yet the very point of this manifesto is its purely symbolic nature. The authors haven’t the least intention of doing anything about rematriating California. This is not a promise of action but a hyperbolic statement of abstract-unreal intention that is presumably all the more virtuous for its unreality. Only deplorables demand the straightforward realism of “Put your money where your mouth is.”
The comparison is sometimes made between the Woke and our Puritan witch-burning ancestors, who certainly “signaled their virtue.” But a Puritan would find the same things outrageous in the above paragraph as I do. A Puritan who professed all the right values but caroused and frequented “loose women” would be denounced (or worse!) for hypocrisy; what is notable here is that the question of hypocrisy has clearly never crossed the author’s mind. The author is ipso facto without agency; if anything is to be done about this, it’s Mommy and Daddy who’ll have to take care of it. This is a new take on the idea that faith can move mountains.
The real point of these deliberate self-humiliations—for linguistic coercion, which violates our linguistic conscience, which is to say, a part of our internalized sacred, is deeply humiliating—is to distance us from the patriotic attachment to the national community of the USA that was taken for granted until a short time ago, but is now considered deplorable, like Obama’s clinging a few years earlier. What we cling to is denial of the victimary truth that our “white” society was built not just regrettably and in part, but essentially and irretrievably, on the backs, on the land, on the lives, of George-Floyd-like Others, whose forgotten misery, enslavement, and untimely deaths are what allow us to enjoy our privileged life.
And perhaps the most horrible aspect of this is that there is truly nothing we can do now to change it—other than acknowledge it at every moment, in every meeting announcement—so that our very inaction becomes the gravest of all accusations leveled at the evil of Western civilization: we are powerless to right the wrongs from which we profit.
In the Christian world-view, the point of Jesus’ mission on Earth was to absolve us of the profound and indelible sinfulness implicit in our human ancestry. How does the notion of “original sin,” which Girard identifies with the practice, if not any specific incident, of “emissary murder,” enter into the originary hypothesis, in which the human can emerge only from a successful event of communal sharing? If indeed the human begins by solving the problem of intraspecific violence, whence comes this hubristic challenge to the sacred itself?
In a word, what is the anthropological significance of Eve and Adam’s eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What element of human experience does this disobedience refer to?
The internalized sacred is not a reflex; we experience it as a transcendental will, but one that we must obey, that requires our active assent. The idea that we are made in God’s image reflects the fact that the sacred will is conveyed to us not as a reflex but as a conscious judgment that we share, however much we are tempted to contradict it. But in the Genesis scene, God’s single interdiction to Adam does not follow this pattern: it is imposed from without, with no explanation. Obviously the interdiction itself, understood not as the voice of the sacred within the conscience, but as a command from without, defines God as communicating with Adam from a higher plane. The interdiction, in other words, does not, like the deferral of appropriation in the originary scene, correspond to the “inner voice” of the sacred; it affirms God’s firstness. And as I pointed out in Chronicle 419, that Eve listens to the serpent—two potentially resentful creatures—in disobeying God’s order allows us to trace resentment’s place in human culture to its very origin.
In GA’s hypothesis, the reality of “evil” must have preceded the “good” solution to the distribution of the meat: the sacred path of deferral in the interest of common satisfaction must have been preceded by many unhappy counter-examples. That is, to be human can only mean being already aware of the difference between “good and evil” as precisely what in the originary event prevents taking anything for oneself until all can communally do so.
In Genesis 3:22, God expresses the fear that, now that Adam, knowing good and evil, “is become as one of us,” he might “put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever”—whence the necessity of “sending him forth.” God’s reason for the expulsion of the couple receives less attention than the fact of their shame at their nakedness, and of the expulsion itself.
The ambiguously plural designation of God ([Adonai] Elohim) makes understandable the “one of us”; I believe this is the only place in the Bible that alludes directly to a community of gods. The “tree of life” that confers immortality may be understood as embodying the sacred itself, which exists only as a transcendent force. Outside Eden, Adam can know good and evil, but he is condemned to mortality. What is it then that within Eden would give the possessor of this knowledge access to immortality?
The explanation that I would offer for this phenomenon explains as well Girard’s derivation of cultural reciprocity from the violence of emissary murder, rather than understanding such murders, and the Crucifixion itself, as posterior revelations of the mimetic rivalry that had been suppressed by the successful deferral of violence implicit in the emergence of the sign.
Such causal inversions are characteristic of Biblical revelations. The most obvious is the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, where God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son, but at the last moment supplies a ram as his replacement. Everything in the story suggests that sacrificing a ram was a mode of worship and feasting that had been the norm since the beginning, but the fact remains that in this scene, the ram was a substitute for Isaac, so that henceforth in making an animal sacrifice, Abraham and his successors will be reminded that the spiritual reality of the sacrifice is of our own blood, a gesture repeated on a transcendent level by Christians ingesting the communion wafer.
From an anthropological standpoint, the success of the originary scene could not have abolished all memory of the failed scenes that must have preceded it during the transition from serial (ape) to egalitarian (human) distribution. What this suggests is that the anthropological significance of the Fall reflects the discovery, following the scenic discovery of true reciprocity, that human seriality, firstness, has not for all that been abolished, but merely deferred: that the sacred cannot, like an animal inhibition, provide us with a reflexive protection from the resentments that the originary scene avoided. It is in this sense that the originary sense of communal harmony would have been followed by the understanding that the sacred space of the scene could not become a place of permanent habitation.
Treating this as our “original sin” is a way of explaining that the sacred does not protect us from ourselves, that to know its imperatives does not abolish our selfish impulses. Once we can say “good” we can say “evil”—and do it. To understand this as our originary “fault,” in both the superficial and profound senses of the word, may be understood as the beginning of theology, of seeking to understand the sacred, not simply as a mechanism of deferral, but as possessing a set of intentions for us that we are commanded to impose on ourselves in the absence of the assembled community whose mimetic force makes them impossible to reject.
Unlike Islam, the Christian world understands our destiny not as submission, but as liberation. By accepting Jesus, humanity can start over, undo the violence without which it would not have come into existence. But alas, such faith, however far extended beyond its Hebrew origins, remains ultimately tribal, not global; it expresses solidarity with “the human community,” not abstractly, but as those who share a common heritage, be it only what Benedict Anderson in an immortal phrase called an imagined community. Thus while Islam retains its dream of the all-inclusive caliphate, as does Eastern Orthodoxy in a more ambivalent form, Western Christianity, however much it seeks world unity, has resolved itself into a system of “Westphalian” nation-states.
But today these “imagined communities” are victims of a plague far more spiritually deadly than Covid-19. That they have survived and prospered is turned into a proof of the evil they have visited on those who have not. The genius of the Woke version of the epistemology of resentment is to find in firstness, the privilege of the founders, the source of all evil. Not so much acts of inequity as the very being of inequity must somehow be suppressed—after which, its embodiment in material advantages is of no great importance.
Why is this happening now? Why is the first generation after the death of the Communist International discovering these noble moral projects to rectify the immoral conquests of past, unWoke generations?
Lost with traditional religious training and its secular equivalent in historical revelation (“The International Soviet shall be the human race!”) is the sense of human firstness as a positive phenomenon—that providing a space for the “pursuit of happiness” and success is, despite inevitable excesses, the only means of progress, and indeed, the only way to permit the failures to ultimately turn their destinies around. That the woke tacitly recognize this is reflected in their at most lukewarm hostility to those whose “pursuit of happiness” has indeed succeeded. Bernie Sanders may rail against “millionaires and billionaires,” but the worst they are threatened with is increasing their tax rates, as if their accountants and lawyers were not earning their six and seven-figure salaries. On the contrary, it is only the health of the market economy that permits the woke to flourish—even while underfunding the military it will need to defend itself.
The 20th-century heirs of the post-Christian epistemology of resentment have destroyed much, but as Adam Smith once said, “there’s a lot of ruin in a nation,” and wokeness’ symbolic damages are the easiest ruins to repair.
Without descending into micro-politics, I think that much would be resolved, in Europe and the US as well as the Middle East, by the continued pursuit of the last administration’s project of bringing together the three Abrahamic faiths. It is quite significant that most of those who violently rebel against Western civilization, including most violent American black nationalists, identify not with “Marxism” but with Jihad. But today’s jihadism expresses a politics of despair. With the expansion of cordial relations, this self-sacrificial energy could be turned to more positive ends, and serve as an example to those who surrender to the fecklessness of historical guilt.
Generative anthropology offers us a reasonably clear understanding of the West’s victimary problem. But if I let my optimism be guided by the Abraham Accords, it is because I have no illusions that originary thinking itself can take the place of transcendental faith. The benefit we can obtain from anthropological understanding is to encourage the confluence of great historical forces that, no doubt fortunately, lie beyond the reach of our theories, but to which these theories can supply a possibly useful catalyst.
Above all, while freely admitting our sins, we must resist “white guilt” in all its forms. Instead, we should bend our efforts to safeguarding “Abrahamic” Western civilization, which has indubitably been the human community’s greatest achievement, against the forces that, seeing the depths to which it has temporarily sunk—as reflected in our current political leadership—would humiliate and destroy it.