Readers of these Chronicles may have noticed that over the past months I have outlined two different ways of looking at the current crisis of Western civilization. On one hand, understanding our civilization as Judeo-Christian, I have suggested that the problem stems from an imbalance between the (Jewish) firstness upon which this civilization is founded and its transcendental sacrifice in Christianity, by which the firstness of the Jews was long considered “superseded,” but in John Paul II’s more comprehensive formulation, given rather the historical role of the “elder brother” to Christianity without whose firstness the latter would not have been possible. The contrast with Islam, which understands its own form of supersession simply as correcting an error, is significant.
In this context, the growth of the victimary is explained as a consequence of the pseudo-Christian denial of firstness, that of the West in relation to the “Orient,” but also of the religious and national firstness of the Jews, without which the West is inconceivable. Victimary morality denies the firstness of the Jews, even as “superseded.” The victimary figure of Jesus loses its power as the fulfiller of the Law and subject/object of universal love and becomes rather the subject/model of victimary resentment. This tendency is exacerbated by the digital revolution, which makes the digitally skilled guiltily aware of the poor prospects of those who aren’t, motivating them to denigrate firstness without really sacrificing it.
On the other hand, I have noted the derivation of the victimary from the evolution of postmodern French Theory, whose confinement of what are ultimately anthropological categories within the metaphysical realm (best illustrated by the restriction of différance and its related concepts to already-constituted language) has led to its supersession by the victim-centered theorizing emblematized by the Orientalism of Edward Said, whose Palestinian origin and political sympathies provide a preliminary connection with the religious component of the crisis.
Given the lack of explicit connection between these two sets of discourses (ignoring for the purpose of this discussion such later developments as the work of Alain Badiou), the question for GA is obviously to clarify their status with respect to the current crisis. No doubt the days of Aquinas are long past; the philosophical tradition, particularly the post-phenomenological branch of it in which we find French Theory, makes no reference to anything biblical, let alone theological. As for influences in the other direction, I must avow a near-total ignorance of contemporary theology. But in any event, it is the task of GA, whatever connections may or may not be present in the “history of ideas,” to define parallels and contrasts between the Judeo-Christian tradition and that of Western philosophy within its own framework. That the French Theorists showed no concern with our religious tradition is significant in itself, particularly inasmuch as Girard took his central inspiration from this tradition. Given that GA can be most simply described as a synthesis of the central ideas of Girard and Derrida, the human being defined by the deferral of violence through representation, the extension of this synthesis to the current civilizational crisis has considerable explanatory potential.
I have often quoted (e.g., in Chronicle 427) Girard’s unhappy comment in Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair that the despairingly caricatural nature of the postwar concern for victims constitutes Hitlerism’s revenge. But this boutade expresses an intuition, not an analysis.
Why indeed did the defeat of the Axis regimes of racial supremacy lead to these victimary excesses, not the least of which is, ironically enough, a revived antisemitism that Girard was almost certainly not thinking of when he spoke of Hitler’s revenge, but which his phrase seems presciently to include? How ironic, indeed, that hating the Jews, or should we say, “Israeli oppression of the Palestinians,” has now become the nec plus ultra of woke “anti-fascism.” How does this help us to explain in what way the victimary can be at the same time a caricature of Christian love for the victim and an effect of the frustration of the French Theory generation’s deconstruction/violation/desecration of metaphysical closure?
As noted in Chronicle 388, the original inspiration for cinema’s nouvelle vague as well as la nouvelle critique, and one might as well include the nouveau roman that was lionized by the latter, was hostility to postwar leftwing écriture’s assignment of moral values according to one’s position in the “class struggle.” Which is to say, its acting similarly to the Left in our own era, minus Marxism’s socio-economic analysis and eschatology, with respect to the ascriptive categories of race, gender, etc.
In the terms of Barthes’ critical categories, how did we get from the degré zéro of writing to the infinite degree that we call the scriptible, and how does the scriptible’s opacity, its resistance to being easily made to correspond to an imaginary reality, lead to a critique of this “realist” correspondence as an ideological disguise for our culture’s oppression of its “other”?
The central problematic remains that of firstness. Barthes’ original conception of écriture sought to expose the epistemology of resentment against “capitalism” that presided over the Stalinist writing he denounced, and which was reflected on a less egregious level in the left-leaning cinéma de qualité of the immediate postwar era. At this stage, Camus’ L’étranger seemed to Barthes to offer the promise of a degré zero that would allow human reality to reveal itself as it were transparently to the reader, that is, in an absolute lisibilité. One can only understand the about-face that led to his later maximizing of écriture, no longer as a Stalinist langue de bois but as an avowal of the naiveté of any claim of neutrality, as an expression of disillusion, a monkish intellectual retreat from the common-sense life-world. Barthes did not express this disillusion politically, but the later French Theorists were quick to explain it as a rejection of a Western ideology of oppression, which Derrida associated with the metaphysical assertion of the primacy of speech over writing, and which would come to be identified specifically with our civilization’s assertion of firstness over its “others.”
Girard, for his part, deconstructed Camus’ Etranger in a prize-winning article in PMLA, “Camus’ Stranger Retried,” (79, 5; 12/1964: 519-533) where he reveals the mensonge romantique of the “stranger’s” alienation. Indeed, given that the victim of his coup de soleil is an Arab, one can easily translate Girard’s critique into the Saidian language of colonial oppression. How curious that the victim for whose death we are asked to blame the sun rather than the murderer himself just happens to be a colonial subject. Girard situates the mensonge in the soul of the protagonist, and therefore of the writer himself: Meursault’s crime is, ultimately, a desperate means of attracting the attention of a society that is somehow to blame for not giving his life “meaning.” Whereas the post-colonial critique turns this “existentialist” denunciation into a critique of firstness, the colonialist’s dominant position that “others” the Arab and makes him a victim, even if the purpose of his murder is to make the society punish this firstness by sending the killer to the guillotine.
As Girard shows, Camus’ prose is suffused with what Sartre called la mauvaise foi, most egregiously at the moment when “the sun” provokes the murder. Is this a matter of écriture? Or should we blame the author’s moral intention rather than the hidden presuppositions of his language? For Girard, the answer is obvious. But those who, like Derrida, blame language itself, or what he sees as Western culture’s faith in language not deferred by écriture=writing, should not be dismissed out of hand. The sun, after all, is the very embodiment of presence.
The political frustration that first expressed itself in Barthes’ anti-Stalinist notion of écriture and which was extended, in very different senses by both Girard and the French Theorists, into a critique of “establishment” language as in effect a false guarantee of sacrality, was at its base a revolt against metaphysics’ originary guarantee of the neutrality of language in Parmenides’ “Way of Truth,” which forms the foundation of classical philosophy. The idea that apparently neutral dichotomies such as black-white or male-female in fact contain implicit presuppositions of firstness that oppose the principle of moral equality is the key link between the deconstructive critique of metaphysics and the current victimary thinking in which these dichotomies are illustrated by the historical firstness of the “white males” of Western civilization. And it goes without saying that when the West is condemned for its firstness, the same goes in spades for the Jews, with Israel ostracized as the bellwether of 21st century Western “imperialism.”
Although its religious specificity never enters explicitly into the debates surrounding the victimary, the crisis of Judeo-Christian civilization cannot be understood without taking into account the role of Islam, of which we are pertinently reminded by the plot of L’étranger.
If the East Asian religious traditions are far enough from the West that we can in a first approximation consider them as independently evolved civilizations—cultures whose ethic, as my admittedly impressionistic analysis of Nagarjuna’s Mahayana paradoxes suggests (see Chronicles 515–516), is focused less on the individual than on the collective scene itself, this is not the case for Islam, the religion of the outsiders of the original Western civilization, which has remained the West’s “other” and defined its limits over much of its history.
The fact that in its first centuries of existence Islam was able to take over well over half the territory of the Christian world, and to continue to threaten it as late as the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, should certainly prevent us from judging its success as a somehow illegitimate example of violence, any more than the violence involved in the settlement of the Americas reflects the moral inferiority of Western to autochthonous societies. Islam’s ability to challenge successfully what was, in the beginning at least, a clearly “higher” civilization reflected something more than the triumph of energetic barbarians over effete decadents.
Unlike the Jewish example of national firstness made problematic by the Hebrews’ non-triumphal history, which both inspired its universalist monotheism and obliged its “nation” to survive over the centuries as a spiritual brotherhood without a territory, Islam is explicitly a religion of conquest. Unlike the modern (Christian) liberal, and in good measure the diaspora Jew, the Muslim is not shy about, as Robert Frost put it, taking his own side in an argument—nor, perhaps more pertinently, about sustaining a positive birthrate.
The Western Left’s tolerance of Islam’s contempt for “infidels” and its persecution of Christians in Muslim countries (the Jews have virtually all left) stems from its persistent sense that they remain the West’s “victims,” whence the frequent reaction of condemning “Islamophobia” immediately after jihadist massacres. Although I share Daniel Pipes’ view that Islam is not inherently incapable of adapting to the modern world of nation-states, this is clearly not as simple a matter as President Bush thought in invading Iraq in 2003.
The Left’s denial of the “Jewish” national impulse has brought about an anomalous tactical alliance between the pseudo-Christian extremism of victimocracy and the strict pre-modern morality of Islam. These two modes of opposition to the Judeo-Christian national and firstness concepts define this opposition in very different ways. For the anti-nationalist Left, nominally opposed to “capitalism” but in fact widely supported by the professional Beta class and by the more woke Alphas, the important thing is maintaining the solidity of what D’Souza calls the “plantation” structure, which allows the economic elite to enlist the lower classes’ political support in exchange for government benefits that maintain them in an economically inferior state while not having to measure themselves by meritocratic criteria. As I earlier suggested, behind this lies the predicament of the digital age, to which no one has yet offered a solution, in which individuals of limited symbolic intelligence cannot reasonably expect to reach the upper levels of the economy. The postwar boom that made the fortune of the unionized working class will not return.
The Left’s way of maintaining the economic system is by denying this problem while at the same time emphasizing the society’s inherent injustice, but in terms not of social class but of ascriptive categories. This emphasis on “discrimination” allows its proponents to explain minorities’ low economic status by (conscious or unconscious) racism, and to propose affirmative action programs that provide remedies for a symbolic few without really modifying the system itself. So far this has maintained the Left’s political base through patronage rather than by any serious socialization of the market economy, which is why it has been effective.
But this American model, predicated on a historical background of slavery and racial segregation, is not applicable in Europe, where welfare payments to Muslim immigrants generate little national or civilizational loyalty. There is little deliberate opposition to the peaceful integration of Muslims into Western culture; it is the Muslims themselves whose ideologically motivated organizations obstruct this integration, with the result that the younger generation is far less ready for it than that of their parents. But the terms of this integration must be carefully negotiated. France’s strong tradition of laïcité has led to a series of battles over Muslim public self-presentation of a kind that would be inconceivable in the US. The “burkini,” an ultra-modest bathing suit approved by the Imams, is banned in many places as a “religious” manifestation, rather than simply a garment of Islamically appropriate feminine modesty. Similar is the case of head-scarves in public schools. Needless to say, squabbles over such matters only further isolate the Muslim community from the French mainstream.
Meanwhile, given that the EU has yet to demonstrate its ability to reproduce its population and maintain its demography, predictions of its eventual religious domination by Islam are difficult to refute. Given Israel’s healthy birth rate, the contrast once more supports the thesis that the excess of “Christianity” over “Judaism” in the West’s Judeo-Christian mix leads not only to an ideological rejection of (national) firstness but to a reluctance to assert firstness on the biological level as well.
The postwar quasi-unification of Europe risks coming to be seen a few decades from now as an unwitting preparation for the absorption of much of Europe into the Umma. It is hardly likely that the Islamic ideal of a world-wide caliphate can maintain itself in a modern economy, but one increasingly gets the impression that it is on an increasingly Islamic terrain that a new synthesis will be worked out; even those nations that have resisted the pressure to admit “migrants” remain incapable of self-reproduction. And if the US, Canada, and Australia have successfully functioned as pays d’immigration for a variety of ethnic groups and races, a radical demographic shift is bound to pose much deeper problems in the ancient homelands of Europe.
At the high point of French Theory, Barthes’ scriptible imaginarily transfigured the intellectual-cultural sphere into a textual El Dorado that “deferred” the problems of the real world. But this conception escaped the clôture de la métaphysique only by doing away with metaphysics itself. If the referential meaning of language is to be indefinitely rewritten and never fixed, then we are like the participants in an originary scene with nothing in the center, and can eat only our own words. Once this textual bubble burst, the enterprise of deconstruction could no longer remain in the realm of language; it turned against firstness in the real world, that of Western vs “Oriental” cultures, or on a cruder level, between those competent in mathematics and those who see such competence as an example of “whiteness.”
Hence today no significant theoretical movement prolongs the Theory of an earlier generation whose intelligentsia was still able to deal with civilizational questions within the categories of Western philosophical culture. The perspective of GA, rooted more firmly in its anthropological base, is not subject to the shock of the loss of metaphysical faith in the realm of ideas. Defense against the excesses of the victimary can only come from the affirmation of firstness, hopefully in the Western liberal-democratic context, but if not, in the quasi-totalitarian mode ominously illustrated by China’s looming cybernetic “social credit” scheme.
For the moment, I think we can view the success of Israel as a crucial sign of the continuing legitimacy of the Western formula of national societies within an international civilization. Necessarily included in this vision, as I understand it, is the eventual acceptance of Israel by its Islamic neighbors, including the Palestinians, although the latter will undoubtedly be the last to be reconciled to the existence of the Jewish state. At this point, the stage will be set for the further engagement of the historical dialectic between the West, plus the Muslim world, and an East Asia that we may hope will not, despite current trends, be dominated indefinitely by an implacable authoritarianism. But the West must first turn its back on its current flirtation with victimocracy.
One sign of return to sanity has just been given by the recent British election. Let us hope that forthcoming elections in the two other most significant Western democracies, Israel and the US, result in a similarly unambiguous reinforcement of the national principle.