As readers of these Chronicles know, the idea of “firstness” was introduced into the originary event by Adam Katz in his article “Remembering Amalek: 9/11 and Generative Thinking” in Anthropoetics X, 2 (Spring 2005). This involved a significant modification of the symmetry of the originary scene, the implications of which have been a source of discussion ever since. What I would like to develop here is the problematic that the originary role of firstness introduces into the human community, defined from the outset by its symmetry in relation to a central sacred object of desire, the relation to which provides the fundamental model of both transcendence and resentment.
Adam’s original observation is one of common sense: if indeed the source of the first sign was the “aborted gesture of appropriation,” then surely not all the members of the group would grasp simultaneously the value of intending this gesture as no longer an aborted act but an act of communication, the first “symbolic” sign. This implies that, in spite of the ultimately symmetrical configuration of the first human communication around the central object, an element of asymmetry was present at the outset. Anything else would indeed be a denial of GA’s fundamental intuition that the sign was from the first a voluntary act, not a reflex, even conditioned, and that even in contrast to what we may consider to be animal acts of judgment, this act was understood as being performed for the express purpose of intra-specific communication—including explicit or implicit communication with the sacred object itself. Animal signs, even highly specific ones such as the elements of bird song, do not function in a scenic configuration where the sign is consciously destined to be understood by one’s audience.
But such an understanding could not be presumed from the start by the first signer, whose original communicative intent must have been to demonstrate that he was not appropriating the object. That is to say, his original intention could only have had as its object an indexical, not a symbolic meaning, which it can have acquired only in the course of its imitation by the others, that is, as no longer an indexical mark of the abortion of its original aim, but the explicit sign of communicative intentionality.
Analyses of this sort demonstrate by their intuitive plausibility the necessity of a “scenario” or mise en scène in the faithful depiction of any human activity. But they take us only to the first step of a full understanding of firstness in the human sphere.
As readers of The End of Culture (California, 1985) will recall, my original notion of firstness—although I did not use the term at the time—focused on the political inequality inaugurated by the “big-man”—a term I discovered in Marshall Sahlins’ classic Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972)—at a time when sedentary life had led to sufficient differentiation of the population so that an individual, presumably a highly successful producer, could claim a hierarchically distinct economic function, that of taking charge of the system of feasts that had previously rotated among the totem-clans of the tribe; as Sahlins points out, the big-man wound up eating less than anyone else. But Adam’s intervention served to remind me that differentiation, which at that point acquired a well-defined socio-political reality, must have been present in germ from the beginning. That is, in contrast to the moral equality of all humans that we “instinctively” recognize in extreme circumstances, the human, given its free self-consciousness that transcends immediate corporeal needs, is differentiated, not simply statistically by inherent abilities, but by the projects that our individual scene of representation allows us to elaborate. Hence even in a situation of political equality, we would necessarily become differentiated from each other in our contributions to both our own welfare and to that of the community. One consequence of this, as has been noted by those who have studied the remaining hunter-gatherer societies, is that despite their ostensibly egalitarian structure, they tend to suffer from a much higher degree of internecine violence than explicitly differentiated societies, given that any deviation from equality provokes resentment that tends to lead to accusations and retaliations, magical explanations countered by witchcraft, etc. That is, humans are “created equal,” but even in the least differentiated societies they are always at least suspected of acting unequally, with often violent consequences.
The advantage of a purely political treatment of firstness was that it could be associated with the passage from egalitarian to hierarchical society, more or less associated with the development of sedentary agriculture and private property; or as Rousseau put it in his Second Discourse: “Celui qui le premier a dit: Ceci est à moi.” (“He who was first to say: ‘This is mine.’”). But if we understand firstness as a fundamental element of the human, we must define its core component not as hierarchical superiority to others, but as the simple possibility of differentiation from them by what might be called our originary cogito, our intuition that we exist in a state of deferral, separated from the physical world by a Sartrian néant that frees us from reflexes both innate and conditioned.
Firstness as primarily not a relationship of hierarchy but of self-differentiation is subject to what we might call the systolic-diastolic interactions of mimesis, which lead us, both consciously and unconsciously, to both assimilate to and differentiate ourselves from our fellows. Its consequences are therefore necessarily in tension with the originary moral reciprocity the use of language created among its users.
No anthropology can have the presumption to derive from an originary event a history of political forms, let alone to define that history’s “end.” But one principle can be so derived, of an importance such that we might well call it the foundation of religion as a source of social coherence: that all human interactions, whatever their degree of symmetry or asymmetry, are mediated through the scenic center. This applies whether we give this center a divine name or treat it, as did Durkheim, as an abstraction (“the human community,” “the social order,” “the polis”…). That kings have been considered sacred cannot be explained as a deception. Which is not to say that the mere affirmation of the king’s sacrality is a sufficient response to the Enlightenment-Revolutionary critique that makes such a claim.
As the originary hypothesis suggests, there is no sharp demarcation between innovation and leadership, between supplying a model of behavior and acquiring the authority to give and enforce orders. The possibility of a hierarchy in which orders are given and taken is implicit in the asymmetry of the typical non-ritual speech situation, in particular of the dialogue initiated by the imperative. Whether or not what Wittgenstein called the “language game” of responding to imperatives makes hierarchy a permanent feature of the social order, its very possibility suggests that it cannot be avoided in the long term if a society is to function efficiently.
But this makes it all the more important to maintain what could be called the implicit ethical principle of firstness as the ultimate source of our judgment concerning the morality of asymmetrical relations: firstness must contribute to the community’s transcendental unity. This is the basis of all systems of public morality, including John Rawls’ calculus of “justice as fairness.” That it cannot justify the straightforwardly quantitative calculations of the utilitarians, which substitute “satisfaction” for justice, is clear from the more fundamental principle of moral equality, however often this principle has been disregarded in practice when one group disposes of an overwhelming advantage over another.
As I tried to show in The Scenic Imagination (Stanford, 2007), one of the consequences of the new epistemology begun with Descartes was the construction of scenic models of originary society to explain, on purportedly immanent terms, the origins of political power-relations. Hobbes’ Leviathan, the classic point of departure, justifies the contractors’ alienation of authority to absolute monarchy, whereas Rousseau’s pre-revolutionary Du contrat social illustrates on the contrary the collective’s maintenance of this power as a “committee of the whole.” In this dichotomy the reader will recognize the choice of emphasis of either of the two poles of the originary scene: the sacred center or the exchangers of signs at the periphery. Save that these models, which at the outset had only to permit the peaceful division of an item of nourishment, are now entrusted with establishing and operating a complex social order.
What we are currently discovering from the growing disarray of many of the West’s liberal democracies, including our own, is that the erosion of a broadly respected civil moral code, whether religious or secular, makes it increasingly difficult to maintain order. And thus we are forced to revert, as our more thoughtful pundits have done, to our Judeo-Christian tradition, and more particularly, to its roots in Jewish firstness that must be affirmed before they can be leavened by the Christian identification with the victim.
A recent review by Richard Reinisch of R. R. Reno’s Return of The Strong Gods (Gateway, 2019) (https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/godsforsaken/) helps make this point more sharply. Reno, well known as the editor of First Things, calls for the “return of the strong gods,” which stand outside the Christian sphere in the narrow sense, but within the overall Judeo-Christian tradition of the West: “love of the divine, love of truth, love of country, love of family.”
Reinisch, I think correctly, while agreeing with Reno’s distaste for the victimary world that religious conservatives tend to assimilate too easily to “liberalism” (see Chronicle 582), asks why Reno isn’t satisfied to call us back to the worship of the God of the Bible, and with this it is hard to disagree. The dangers of worshiping “strong gods,” especially given the recent multiplication of what the French nicely call démocratures, are no small matter, even if we are not ready to compare Trump, or even Victor Orban, with Hitler. But clearly, leaving aside for the moment our critique of the simple identification of liberalism with globalism, Reno’s intuition that we need something stronger to counteract what he calls the “weak gods” of globalism, “human rights,” etc., is not itself without foundation, and in this context, merely reminding us of the values of Christianity is not quite enough.
What is missing here, it seems to me, is the recognition that one does not need “strong gods” but merely a strong god: the God of the Jews, who was that of Jesus as well. This is by no means to recommend the repudiation of Christianity for Judaism, but rather a return to what Girard always called the Judeo-Christian, and in particular, to the Old Testament inspiration of the nation-state that, beginning in the Reformation, became the basis for the post-Westphalian Western social order roughly called liberal democracy. What history has taught us since 1989 is that Fukuyama was unwise to declare this system “ultimate,” not because some form of “socialism” is likely to prove more resilient, but because this declaration naively conveys the illusion that the future evolution of the system will be a mere matter of detail. Whereas declaring that this general system has proved itself “the best” is in effect tantamount to admitting that its present state provides no obvious hints as to which of its parameters will prove crucial to its future evolution.
For example, China today is far indeed from what we would call a “liberal democracy,” yet it does have versions of this system’s two fundamental components: separate political and economic markets. No doubt, in comparison with the democracies, the political market is much more strongly hierarchical and the economic market much more under government control; we need not even speak of the lack of respect for “human rights.” But it is perfectly possible that this arrangement will prove in the long run, even without its long-awaited “liberalization,” a viable modification of the double-market system. It has certainly worked better than the Russian model, including in its present authoritarian form. At the very least, the jury is still out—as it never was for the USSR, despite its military strength. How many of us have ever purchased a product of Russia other than a bottle of vodka? How many can say this about China?
That I insist on the Judeo-Christian heritage of the West is not a matter of conservative or Jewish piety. It reflects the fact that although religion is not something that we can wish into, or back into, being, the originary hypothesis suggests that the phenomenon of revelation has a permanent social-psychological reality. That is to say, that although theoretical essays calling for the “revival” of Christianity can have little effect on reality, what we can do as theoreticians is assess to what extent the components of the Judeo-Christian revelation remain in balance in the inspiration that they bring to our worldly existence. If this is done, I think it becomes clear that what is out of balance is precisely what I have been designating as victimary thinking.
To the extent that history offers exemplary situations in which global problems are so to speak concentrated and the progress toward—or away from—their solution observable, I would insist on that of Israel in the current world situation. We can observe in the changing international status of Israel the conflict between firstness and victimary egalitarianism in its rawest form. The extraordinary favor shown the Palestinians by the EU, for example, demonstrates the incapacity of today’s post-Christians to accord any weight to firstness once it is challenged by claimants of victimhood. Israel is the world’s only nation whose very existence as the state of its “national” group, the Jewish people, is simply rejected, with considerable diplomatic support, by the residents of part of its territory, along with the descendants of former residents, although the “Palestine” they claim as their home in exile never previously constituted a nation in any sense, but was a division of the Turkish empire passed down to its British successor. The idea that victimary status trumps all other considerations is paid lip-service and receives virtue-signaling recognition elsewhere, but here it is given real financial and moral support, through the UNRWA, for example, that pays benefits to “refugees” whose connections with their “homeland” are two or three generations old. The unique application of such thinking to Israel is certainly an example of the exceptional hostility to Jews that we call antisemitism, but that is a label, not an explanation.
I submit that hostility to the firstness of the Jews-Hebrews is a revelatory symptom of the tension within the Judeo-Christian West between moral equality and firstness, human sameness and difference, and that its intensity, which has varied over time, reflects the intensity of this tension. It reached a catastrophic level under the Third Reich, which embodied the paradox of the victimary rival claiming that the “final” solution to the firstness unjustly usurped by the Jews was simply to exterminate them, their undoubted ability to achieve worldly success paradoxically constituting proof of their sub-human status. The reestablished nation of Israel was the result of the defeat of this pathological conception, and Israel’s survival and progress to greater acceptance even in its own “neighborhood,” where the Judeo-Christian nation-concept has had much difficulty in dominating Islamic tribalism-universalism, at least give hope that the Western national system as a whole can survive. One may even hope that this will one day be demonstrated by the full acceptance of Israel’s nationhood by the EU, as it is in the process of being accepted for the first time by the US under Trump’s presidency.
The return of antisemitism in the post-Cold-War era should not lead us to think that nothing has changed in “the oldest hatred.” The current battles in the US and Europe over the very principles of liberal democracy must be fought with the confidence that participating in the symbolic denial of firstness that expresses itself as hostility to Jews and/or Israel can lead only to catastrophe, and in a nuclear world, to possible annihilation.
It would be helpful in this regard if American Jews, whose representatives in the Jewish Democratic Council of America recently declared that Trump was “[t]he biggest threat to the security of American Jews today” (see https://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-biggest-threat-american-jews-today-jewish-democrats-say-new-ad-1472953), would begin to recognize, in solidarity with Israel, who their best friends are.