In the preceding Chronicle, I proposed that the best way to understand victimary thought in its radical antinomianism is as a new fundamental anthropology, albeit one that denies its “originary” status as well as the violence-deferring virtues of the human scene. The difficulty of grasping the essence of the victimary reflects its radical difference from previous anthropologies, those above all that ontologize the sacred and that we call religions, and even those, derived from the Enlightenment, that posit for the sacred a secular but substantive equivalent. In victimary anthropology, there can be no “event of the origin of language,” since the very notion of “event” is deemed a myth of false immediacy through which those in authority make asymmetric relations appear symmetrical, disguising oppression as free exchange. Here the human emerges, not through reciprocally sharing a sign of equality before the sacred, but through the denial of always-already existing inequality.
Victimary thought is an inverted metaphysics. Where GA offers the birth scene of the sign as the source of the “moral model” of reciprocal exchange, victimary anthropology implicitly grounds its justification of the victim’s resentment on an unattainable model of perfect reciprocity, a Platonic Good unconnected to human language and practice. What metaphysics posited by fetishizing language, the victimary denies by “deconstructing” the world of human representation. Whereas metaphysics denies the historical origin of language in the service of guaranteeing the substantiveness of the Ideas that it claims human language accesses rather than creating, for the victimary, the idea of “the Good,” rather than subsisting prior to human difference, both embodies and denies this difference as the always-already-existing proof of its own impossibility.
In Derrida’s maximally rigorous exposition of the victimary model, this impossible moral truth functions exclusively to demonstrate by contrast the victimary nature of all human relations. Deferral, différance, both in GA and in classical philosophy, where Plato’s cave illustrates the necessity of maintaining the separation of the Ideas from the world even at the cost of slavery and illusion, is primarily a means to avoid human violence. For the victimary, in contrast, the gap of deferral is the repressed flaw that gives the lie to the compact presence in which humanity has the illusion of communing with itself. Where the sacred leader pretends to speak without mediation to and for the adoring crowd, victimary thought uncovers between his speech and our hearing the same void that we experience in reading the écriture of a long-dead author.
Why does the victimary find deferral incompatible with reciprocity, when in the originary hypothesis, the sign’s deferral of immediate contact with the object via the gesture of appropriation is precisely what makes possible the equidistance from the sacred center that constitutes the human? The difference is that Derrida conceives this center, which in our scene is occupied by an object become sacred because too desirable to appropriate, as always already usurped by a central authority whose voice creates the illusory “compactness” by which Voegelin characterizes the ritualistic hierarchy of the old empires. The “natural” pre-human hierarchy of the family is, in Derrida’s reading of Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues (see De la grammatologie, p. 374), transmuted into a “supplementary” originary political authority, a transition that Derrida associates with the imposition of the law of incest. The significant point, although it is not emphasized in Derrida’s text, is that the human begins, or has always-already begun, not as a group of equals, but as an extension of the family under patriarchal authority. Where Girard’s mimesis fills the proto-human world with rivalrous, potentially aggressive desire and, in our GA variant, requires a space of freedom in the center to function as a social whole, the void at the center of the Derridean world draws in a hierarchical figure by default. The significance for victimary thought of the sexual difference implicit in the incest prohibition will be discussed below.
Derrida’s deconstruction of the immediacy of “presence” as an ideological myth functions to generate a counter-myth, his own disappointed utopia. Failing to see the humanizing property of the néant, he defines the kernel of culture as a myth of immediacy, whose conscious or unconscious purpose is to disguise the hollow and oppressive relationships between human beings, starting from the center’s tyranny over the periphery. For this exemplary victimary thinker, once animal immediacy has been broken by the deferral instituted by the sign, it can be replaced only by the tyranny of écriture, by which an absent master declares himself present to his deluded slave. (The later, “Levinasian” works of Derrida that partially abandon this perspective also abandon the implicit ambition of his early works to create a coherent, if paradoxical, victimary anthropology; they are consequently not directly germane to the present discussion.)
The most useful way to understand the focus of victimary critique on Western civilization (in contrast, for example, to its lack of concern for the barbarous practices of sharia, or those of the remaining communist tyrannies) is as an attack on firstness, meaning both the hierarchy necessary to the functioning of the society and above all, its source in the firstness that Christianity inherited from the Jews, transferring it from the religious and moral domain to those of the market economy and to national and eventually global social organization. The most significant modern form taken by this cultural firstness from the early modern era was that of colonization, which, formal and informal, by the turn of the twentieth century had reached most of the rest of the globe. At the interface between more and less technologically and socially advanced cultures, domination is arguably inevitable in some form; today’s medical programs in Africa, however benign, are certainly examples of international firstness. But whatever positive features colonialism may have possessed along with the undoubted negative ones, WWII put an end to its legitimacy, and beyond this, greatly encouraged the post-colonial resentment that is taken for granted today in relationships between former colonies and the Western powers.
If one stands back from the moral indignation that victimary thought encourages, what one sees is resentment of the West—chiefly by Westerners, as I shall discuss below—for its success. One shudders to think what kind of world we would be living in if, for example, the Ottoman empire had been able to pursue its conquest of Europe, let alone if today’s jihadists were able to establish their caliphate. But such alternatives have been until now made improbable by Christian Europe’s more dynamic and modern institutions that, by encouraging firstness in individuals as inventors and entrepreneurs, imparted firstness to the entire civilization. The atmosphere of contemporary courses on world history is the opposite of the Eurocentric triumphalism of the past, but this perverse humility, however it may help cure us of the sin of pride, throws out the baby of historical achievement with the bathwater of the arrogance that this achievement generates. Discussions of Western slavery simply dismiss as irrelevant the presence of slavery throughout Africa and the Middle East before the arrival of the Europeans. The victimary vision of history, the self-castigation of the “oppressor” civilization, is most simply understood as a critique of firstness as such. There is no way of being superior that cannot be accused of victimage; the only possible comparisons are between bad and worse. Since the human, grounded in reciprocity, continually produces firstness, victimary history is a history of evil.
Nor is the victimary vision of history, unlike that of the revolutionary era that finds its apogee in Marx, compatible with a theory of social evolution that could eventually yield a “good” (casteless, classless, functionally egalitarian) society. In the absence of a final goal, the politics of group resentment attacks firstness as such as oppression. That victimary activism precludes any possible declaration of victory is clear both from the persistent resentment maintained by eminent spokespersons for victim groups (e.g., Eric Holder) and by an increasing sensitivity to “micro-aggressions” that insures that relations between “majority” and “minorities” will never be judged fully reciprocal.
Historically, the victimary emerges as a reaction to the Holocaust, experienced along with Hiroshima as the apocalyptic revelations of WWII. The Holocaust was taken as a sign of the moral unworthiness of Western Civilization, whose lesser crimes of oppression: colonialism, racial segregation, patriarchy, “homophobia,” were made finally inexcusable by association with it. Yet the victimary nature of the postmodern, still not understood as such today by most of its adherents or even its enemies, was unforeseeable at the outset. The atmosphere after WWII was essentially hopeful, and the extension of the defeat of Hitler’s racial policy to less radical systems of de jure discrimination such as colonialism and segregation was undertaken primarily in the unresentful spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. As always, the state of “the Jewish question” reflected the fundamental thrust of the movement: the creation of Israel after the war had the world’s sympathy. To the extent that the Jews were the war’s principal victims, the establishment of a Jewish state was seen as helping reestablish our civilization’s moral equilibrium, as were the ongoing battles against segregation and colonialism.
But the euphoria that greeted Israel’s declaration of independence gave way, especially after its victory in the Six Day War in 1967, to a dubious preference for its Palestinian “victims.” This reigniting of the “Jewish question,” which the more recent phenomenon of jihadism has only intensified, gave proof that the resentment of firstness, embodied by Israel as a representative of the “West,” would survive the failed totalitarian attempts either to level firstness à la Stalin or to convert it into ontological permanence à la Hitler. In the same period of the second half of the 1960s, the victory of the Civil Rights movement over “Jim Crow,” rather than laying American racial resentment to rest, began to provoke demands for the reverse discrimination of “affirmative action” to supplement the formal equality originally sought but now deemed insufficient to provide equal chances to blacks held back by generations of segregation. And so we still have affirmative action nearly fifty years later, to which we have added “diversity” and “disparate impact.” The turn from equality-centered to victim-centered politics in the late 1960s marked the key moment in the transformation of the postmodern from an affirmation of universal human solidarity into the resentful permanent revolution against firstness that has evolved into today’s victimocracy.
The purely negative or “deconstructive” nature of the victimary reflects the postmodern absence of hope for a credible “more advanced” form of civilization—a conviction that grew throughout the postwar era and received its final demonstration with the fall of world communism in 1989. Motivated exclusively by reducing “oppression,” the victimary mindset is impervious to even the most obvious demonstrations of social improvement through advances in medicine, agriculture, cybertechnology, fuel extraction, …; its chief reaction to such advances is, where possible, to condemn their possible adverse effects on the planet. (A recent column by Kevin Williamson makes the almost-never-heard point that despite wage stagnation, the American poor, not even to speak of the middle class, are far better off materially than they were three decades ago, measured by the improved quality of the goods and services to which they have access.)
As alluded to in the above discussion of Derrida, anthropological reality provides a guarantee of victimary resentment more fundamental than social stratification (which does not exist as such in the simplest human societies): that of sexual difference. No doubt resentment of this difference was not the point of departure for the empowerment of resentment inaugurated by the French Revolution (although Olympe de Gouges promulgated in 1791 a Déclaration des droits de la femme that pointedly translated the earlier universal—but implicitly male—demand for equality into sexual terms, an affront she was to expiate on the guillotine). Nor was sexual difference the historical stimulus for the victimary era. Yet the thoroughgoing feminism that emerged after WWII, stimulated by the appearance of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe in 1949, had an altogether different demographic scope than the battles against colonialism and segregation. Relationships among races and ethnic groups are mostly economic, and for many are rare or non-existent; relations between the sexes affect everyone. A “white male” can avoid confrontation with the resentment of “nonwhites,” but not with that of the “second sex.”
Conversely, sexual difference is the ultimate guarantee that there will always be “oppressors” and “victims.” We need not claim it to be the “unconscious” of postmodern victimary thinking to note that it gives biological proof of human asymmetry, and more significantly, that the far greater male propensity for violence, which of course reflects the sexes’ different functions in reproduction and child care, had made women less central to the sacred and its (religious) culture, whose primary function, as we know, is to defer violence. As we enter the victimocratic phase of the postmodern era—at a time when women near 60% of college students and where young women’s earnings are within striking distance of those of males—the increased potency of female resentment is perversely but understandably reflected in a renewed emphasis on feminist sexual politics.
Is victimary thinking a “religion”? As heir to the revolutionary destruction of traditional ritual society, it is comparable to the earlier era’s secular substitutes for religion, of which a much-weakened Marxism is the only significant survivor. No doubt, because the victimary has no notion of a kingdom of God, or in secular terms, a fundamentally virtuous social order, it is not “religious” in the sense of commemorating a divine or potentially utopian Creation. Yet in terms of its praxis, one might call victimary activism the very essence of religion; it binds its adherents together not merely in a solidarity-reinforcing system of ritual interactions but in a common mission that, like every evangelism, will always have farther to go and more work to do.
This praxis is the one key element the victimary retains from the utopian revolutionary movements that preceded it. Victimary thinkers unfailingly sympathize with the remaining revolutionaries, communist and even jihadist, since without really believing in “socialism” (let alone Islamism), they presume that open-ended, uncompromising criticism of “capitalist” societies is unfailingly beneficial. If all symmetries are mythical and can be deconstructed into oppressive differences, then each new awareness of inequity will necessarily lead to the discovery of as yet unsuspected inequities—a state of consciousness illustrated by the Kinsley quotation in last week’s (and Christmas 2004‘s) Chronicles. But this open-endedness remains uniquely focused on sexual and “racial” differences. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (which deliberately limited itself to whites to avoid confusing class and racial issues) has not generated any particular sympathy for the white working class (although they as well as others have benefited from the recent vast expansion of entitlements such as “food stamps”). Nor have I ever seen the term micro-aggression applied to relations between rich and poor members of the same race, although such phenomena were much remarked on in the pre-victimary and racially insensitive thirties (e.g., the 1936 film My Man Godfrey), when class distinction was the main “prejudice” to be overcome and where the optimistic idea that “we are all the same” was easier to negotiate.
The central moral dimension of the victimary is easier to sense intuitively than to define precisely. Our first impression is one of obsessive resentful self-righteousness. But if we focus on the “majority,” who remain after all the dominant force in the society, we soon realize that the dominant attitude of the victimary era is rather that of White Guilt, and that in encouraging resentment on the part of victims, the Guilty do not simply identify with them. The increasing vehemence with which respectable progressive publications such as The New Republic denounce the selfishness and insensitivity of their conservative opponents, using an often scurrilous rhetoric found on the right only among hate groups or talk show callers, reflects the mimetic scandal that these are “people like me” yet who, unlike myself, are in denial of their victimizing nature.
With the partial exception of the ill-fated 1871 Paris Commune, modern revolutions were always exercises in White Guilt, with members of privileged classes demolishing the privileges of their class for the benefit of the oppressed, while persuading themselves (and imposing on everyone else) that to carry out this selfless activity their political privileges should “temporarily” be vastly augmented. In the victimary era, the essential quarrel is still not between oppressor and oppressed, but remains within the privileged group, between those who accept and those who have the arrogance to deny White Guilt. That the term “victimocracy” nonetheless reflects a real shift in power to the victimary groups themselves is a point for future Chronicles to explore.
The victimary dynamic is most clearly observed by turning from human relations, complicated by feedback loops, to our relationship with Nature. Gaia feels no resentment, but virtuous sufferers from White Guilt experience it on Her behalf, often expressing passionate hostility toward those who persist in considering humanity as the only locus of moral value and hence by right the master of the natural universe. Yet those who express resentment on behalf of Nature do so in full cognizance that they too are among the guilty, and in some cases at least one might even dare to think that they care more about assuaging their own guilt than condemning the brazen guiltlessness of their opponents. Humanity’s “sins” toward Nature can never be redeemed, only diminished by prophylactic measures. If our ecological impact is always negative, it is bound to be ultimately disastrous, and we can at best slow down the final catastrophe, no positive model of virtue being available beyond self-annihilation.
The example of environmentalism thus suggests to us a quasi-religious view of the victimary as a “Puritanical” world-view obsessed by sin. Environmentalists easily fall into a rhetoric of misanthropy that affirms the universe would be better off without us. Such negative thoughts might have been inspired in the past by our sense of sinfulness with respect to God, which is ultimately to say, against each other. Today, they reflect our guilt for the economic activity with which human existence, particularly in industrial society, disturbs the balance of nature. This suggests by analogy that what ultimately empowers the resentment of victimary groups and confers on it not merely an absence of sinfulness but a badge of virtue is likewise the sin-laden White Guilt of the repentant oppressors—none of which proves that the erstwhile victims, unfettered by guilt, cannot take the initiative from their enablers.
The balance between firstness and equality, or in more euphemistic terms, “freedom” and “democracy,” is the eternal point of contention between the two sides of what has become in the US, and to some extent elsewhere in the West, an increasingly uncivil political debate. On the Left, by relentlessly attacking firstness in principle, victimary thought offers its adherents a simple answer, grounded in a simple anthropology, analogous to the hammer for which everything looks like a nail. In contrast, defending firstness from these attacks in an affirmative manner that respects but goes beyond Burke’s passive caution about destroying “normal” arrangements is not so easy. But this difficulty makes all the more valuable the positive anthropology of the originary hypothesis, which recognizes, along with religion but not victimary thought, the value and necessity of firstness.
I hope to discuss in future Chronicle(s) how, or perhaps whether, a politically viable defense of firstness in the long term is possible—a discussion to which Adam Katz’s frequent posts on the GA blog have already much contributed.