In the years preceding my discovery/invention of the originary hypothesis, I was strongly influenced by two modes of thought. First, on coming to UCLA in 1969, I met Alain Cohen, then a recent UCLA PhD. Alain, who taught for many years at UCSD, acquainted me with the perspective of the Palo Alto school headed by Gregory Bateson, and in particular with a 1967 book by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication, which introduced the concept of pragmatic paradox, the typical example being the (Jewish?) mother who orders her son to “Be spontaneous!”

And then, in 1972, Girard’s La violence et le sacré appeared. This seminal work extrapolated the “novelistic” triangle of mimetic desire in Mensonge romantique into a fundamental anthropology which, however I have come to differ with it in detail, shares with GA the essential idea that our specific difference from all other creatures is that our greater mimetic intelligence makes the danger from our fellow humans of greater concern to us than the dangers of the environment—whence our need for “culture.”

My first application of the idea of pragmatic paradox was to esthetics, since it seemed intuitively obvious that, in contrast to “rational” uses of systems of representation to convey information or to derive true propositions from others a la Euclid, the imaginary world we conjure up in “consuming” a work of art—the absence of a universally appropriate word for this activity is itself indicative—arouses in us desires for “just deserts” for the characters, resolution for dissonances, etc., but whose satisfaction is not simply equivalent to the “esthetic pleasure” we find in the work. Indeed, in the “highest-cultural” case, that of tragedy, we feel ourselves obliged on the one hand to wish for the protagonist’s success and on the other to participate in his undoing. If at the end, Oedipus had decided to give up his search for the murderer and walked off into the sunset with Jocasta, Sophocles would have been competing not at the tragic but the comic festival.

To put in more abstract terms what tragedy has the advantage of making concrete: there is a difference of level between one’s “identification” with the protagonist and one’s “faith” in the author’s overall construction. As William Flesch (see Chronicle 554) would have it, we aren’t identifying so much as evaluating the morality of the results, although the mimetic nature of this process does provide some justification for the term. But what concerns us here is that the esthetic involves, like all paradoxical experiences, a relationship of inclusion. The Jewish mother wants her son to be spontaneous, but by thematizing this, she makes it impossible, because “spontaneous” means not previously thematized. And this twist can in fact be generalized to all cultural discourses, since literary characters are always described by the author as acting “spontaneously” within the limits of their world, whereas in reality their behavior is determined by his prior decision, just as the notes that follow each other “spontaneously” in a symphony are predetermined.

The esthetic is the most interesting and intentionally enjoyable mode of paradoxical experience, but paradox is fundamental to all representation, and of course to the sacred, as the mark of the scenic separation of the significant from the rest of the field of experience. All language obeys this paradox. If what a signifier designates is a signified, then it only can have come into existence along with the signifier. What I call the fundamental paradox of signification is, quite simply, that the sign designates its referent as significant, but given that “significance” is a category inaugurated by the sign, how can it already be a quality of what is designated as such? This is all the more obvious when it comes to the first sign, in our hypothesis the name-of-God, the quintessential paradoxical Being.

Paradoxes are obsessively frustrating since they constantly shift levels, demonstrating, when we would supposedly rather ignore it, that the ontological separation between signs and their referents is a fiction, one in the absence of which signs could not function, yet that cannot be given a basis in “reality.”

This might sound frivolous, but it is anything but a word-game: it is at the very core of human culture, and our reluctance to see this, in contrast with our meditations on the specificity of human consciousness since Descartes, is a futile attempt at demystification that only blunts our sensibilities.

It might be nice to find a better term than “paradox” to describe this destabilizing element, but its very coldness has an advantage, in comparison with terms like beauty, sacrality, numinosity…, which designate in more specific ways our attachment to the paradoxical spiral of self-inclusion. Indeed, to ask for a definition of paradox is to forget that paradox precedes any system of definitions, that it appears at the very origin of representation, of “symbolic” signs.

The Jewish Paradox

How odd
For God
To choose
The Jews
(antisemitic poem)

Over a dozen years ago, in the last talk I gave at COV&R, with the exception of our joint meeting in Tokyo in 2012, I attempted to explain the perennity of antisemitism through an analogy between the Hebrew discovery/invention of the One God and the famous Barber Paradox.

What does antisemitism have to do with paradox? Or to put it another way, what do Jews and “the Jewish question” have to do with paradox? But isn’t the very idea that there is a “Jewish question” paradoxical?

I realize that as myself a member of this religion—the only one that strikes me as wholly compatible with atheism—my writing on the subject cannot be altogether “objective,” and might strike non-members as parochial, Judeocentric. Well, that cannot be helped—nor has the solution adopted by some Jews, to distance themselves from any expression of national pride, let alone Zionism, done anything to prevent antisemitism in the past or present.

The uniqueness of the Jews is indeed a kind of “election,” not in the sense that it makes them a superior people, merely an exemplary one. No doubt the Hebrews, in part as a result of their long-nomadic status, did have an intuition of the uniqueness of God and, I think more significantly, of his lack of a vocative name. We learn this in what is for me the most significant passage in the Old Testament, Exodus 3:14, where God gives his name to Moses as Ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I am who/that I am.” There are after all historical reasons for the emergence of Judeo-Christianity as the foundation of the West, and whatever other merits the ancient Hebrews may have had, they certainly had some original theological ideas.

But the point I wish to make here is that in the context of a discussion of paradox as the fundamental “concept”/structure/configuration of culture, this history is secondary, or to put it another way, is already, toujours déjà as the Derrideans like to say, included in the subsequent phenomenon of election-antisemitism. No doubt the Jews might have ceased to incur this timeless hatred had they not been generally successful in their “Mercurian” endeavors (see Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century, Princeton, 2004) but this too is merely a contributing—or corroborating—factor.

What then is it that the Jews are known/hated/envied for? Their firstness. The originary hypothesis proposes that the human originates by establishing an egalitarian society that supersedes the Alpha-Beta organization of higher primates. The superiority of the Alpha over the others is not a criterion of rulership or even leadership, but merely of precedence, a way of organizing a queue. At a bus stop, those waiting longest get on first; in situations where a queue must be created ab ovo, the simplest way to do it is to let the participants “fight it out among themselves,” as a result of which, the strongest will come first, and their hierarchy will remain stable, with the proviso that one always has a chance to improve his position by challenging someone higher up.

If humans are “too mimetic” to be governed by such a structure, it is because their supplementary mimeticism leads them to see the Alpha, at the moment of his taking the first share, not merely as first in line but as opposed to all the other members of the group. Whence the “mimetic crisis.” But, pace Freud and Girard, killing off the Alpha (or anyone else) does not resolve this problem. The only way to do so is through the emergence of a common sign that defers appropriative activity and permits its regulation by the group as a communal act, Homer’s “equal feast”—as various primitive societies have obligingly revealed to us, at least since W. Robertson Smith’s famous description of a camel sacrifice in his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites in 1894.

However, not only does this not prevent some from catching on to the new system faster than the others; it requires, as Adam Katz has pointed out, that some must have grasped the idea before the others. For the sign began as a new idea, an innovation, not the result of an instinctive learning process independent of consciousness. No doubt the firstness of the one or few who started it all was not honored in the final result, but it was nonetheless essential to the event itself. Indeed, the non-recognition of firstness in primitive societies is the major factor in their instability. Differentiation between the first and the others presumably acquired its institutional validation with the possibility of accumulating the results of one’s labor, as in Marshall Sahlins’ big-man scenario (see The End of Culture); and pace “socialism,” it has not lost it since.

Since firstness has been around since the beginning, and was incorporated into the fabric of society as soon as humans became able to accumulate wealth, why is it that the Jews have become in Western society, and now throughout the world, the exemplars and scapegoats of firstness?

It was the Jews who “discovered” the One God. The parallel I drew with the Barber Paradox was that in a world where men either shave themselves or let themselves be shaved, the Barber alone defies this dichotomy. The One God who reveals himself to Moses as I am that I am may be understood as choosing him, not for his superiority over others, but simply as the arbitrary bearer of the message that all named Gods have been superseded, or to put it more politely, that the essence of the central divinity requires that it not be the object of a vocative. Hence we may say that Moses has been assigned the task of “shaving” the population of its naïve concept of the sacred as having an “anthropomorphic” name.

Moses must shave himself as well, indeed, before shaving the others. But the fact that the One God has spoken to him, even if it be to deny his ontological identity with subordinate, namable beings, distinguishes Moses and his people from the others in the world to whom they are to transmit this revelation. How else, might one ask, could God communicate his unique, transcendental status to the world? But if God cannot be spoken to as if a member of a specific ethnic group, he has nevertheless chosen to speak with a member of a specific ethnic group, and this gesture of election can never be forgotten. Even if God’s message is that as the One God he is not on the same level as humans, be they Hebrews or anyone else, and cannot be spoken to as if he were, there is nonetheless one group of humans who has been singled out to receive this revelation in their language. The Hebrew “name” of God is unpronounceable; it is nonetheless not nonexistent.

Well, you might say, God’s “naming” himself as I am who I am is a revelation implicit in the transcendent sacrality/centrality of the divine, just as the “objective” declarative proposition was implicit in the deferral of the originary ostensive. No doubt, but the Hebrews thought of it first. God revealing his “name” to Moses is, put the other way around, the Hebrews revealing God’s unnamability to the world. And that is all they needed to be the “chosen people” and to inspire hatred throughout the generations.

As a supplementary, ironic confirmation of this, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now understand the postmodern victimary model, born from the ashes of the Holocaust and making “racial” firstness on the Nazi model an abomination, as itself being implicitly antisemitic from the beginning.

The record of the UN in condemning Israel to the near-exclusion of other nations is simply taken for granted. Even advanced European nations habitually condemn Israel, while generously financing and excusing the egregious rights violations, inefficiency, and corruption of the Palestinian entity that opposes it. This seems so natural that one scarcely needs to explain it, and until Nikki Haley, little was ever said at the UN in opposition to it.

The fact that the Palestinian Arabs are the only group considered refugees unto the nth generation is not explicable by any particular quality of the Palestinians themselves, but by the fact that the Jews cannot ever be considered at home anywhere on Earth. The “Wandering Jew,” independently of the specifics of history, is implicit in his chosenness. He is the ur-Mercurian, the one whose God has less than any other the right to a home.

No surprise then that UNESCO, along with Mahmoud Abbas, does not hesitate to deny the Jews’ connection to their own historical monuments. Is this Big Lie not itself a form of election? No other country not merely has contested borders but is simply not recognized by the very people they are supposed to participate with in a “two-state solution,” and who are in no way stigmatized for their unreasonableness.

It is in no way my desire to counter-stigmatize the Palestinians, who suffer more than anyone, as populations always do from the soft racism of low expectations, for being permitted, indeed, coerced to subsist on their victimary status rather than on cultivating their own talents—as do the many successful Arab citizens of Israel. My point is simply that all this is explicable by the simple fact that the Jews, Holocaust or not, have been chosen by history as the eternal souffre-douleur of firstness. Which only demonstrates the fundamental truth of Adam Katz’s insistence that, even in the originary event, someone had to be first.

Some final points. Since Freud, we have all been made aware of the therapeutic power of pragmatic paradox. But Freud’s system is relatively crude, since it allows the patient to anticipate the therapist’s imposition of a variant of the family drama: you hate your father and/or love your mother. By doing away with the family model, Girard’s triangle of desire exploits the paradox’s full potential.

You are told that in what- or whomever you desire you are really mediated by UnTel. And the more you deny, in what the French call la dénégation, the importance of UnTel in your life, the more you demonstrate just the opposite, like the poor hero of Notes From Underground walking up and down in front of Zverkov’s dinner party in order to demonstrate his indifference. Whether or not you were mediated by UnTel in the beginning, you certainly have become so at the end. QED.

If you think I’m exaggerating, talk to a few Girardians. Girard’s books have much more to offer than this, but the genius of this paradoxical system is largely what keeps people reading them. Which is, in a broader sense, the genius of Christianity: whatever egoism there may be in the preacher of the faith is subsumed in his service to Jesus as the ultimate, true Mediator.

On the contrary, a Jew writing about how antisemitism is understandable because of the paradoxical specialness of the Jews only generates hostility against himself and the Jews in general. That is, sadly, the genius of Judaism.

I make these points since at the moment neither religion seems to be doing very well in the contest with Islam, which takes the position that whatever the paradoxes of the “peoples of the book,” Allah has done away with them, un point c’est tout. If there is really only one God, then he doesn’t need a “name,” he’s just Allah. Keep it simple.

To put in more world-historical terms the point that Daniel Pipes has been making recently (see for example about the need for the Palestinians to accept their defeat by the Israelis, and with it, the permanent presence of the latter, before peace can come to the Middle East: The acceptance of the Jews as “just like any other people,” the end of the stigmatization of firstness, and thus the end of the victimary era and its (anti-)racism… this would be as close to the “end of history” as I can imagine.

I would love to share Pipes’ optimism. But it’s asking a lot of the Palestinians to be the first to understand, in an inversion of the way that Islam understands it, that this would be the one way to put an end to the chosenness of the Jews.