The notion of firstness was first introduced into GA by Adam Katz as an “amendment” to my original conception of the originary event in his article “Remembering Amalek: 9/11 and Generative Thinking” (Anthropoetics X, 2; Fall 2004/Winter 2005). The term itself comes from Charles S. Peirce, where it refers to a pure qualitative experience. Adam identifies it with iconicity, but I have adopted it in the sense of “going first” to refer to the status of the first individual(s) who realized that the “aborted gesture of appropriation” could be used as a sign.
Adam’s well-taken point was that it is a category error to assume that all the members of the originary group “spontaneously” discover/invent the sign, that is, the sign-function of the aborted appropriative gesture. In the context of the originary experience of collective deferral, this function can only be exercised intentionally. Hence we should assume that one or more individuals first realize that what had been an aborted gesture, that is, a failed act, can be reconceived as a sign—a means of communication to the others that the signer is (1) deliberately renouncing and not merely “aborting” his original act, and (2) pointing out the object whose appropriation was desirable but for that very reason interdicted, in a word, sacred.
Such an intentional act implies a new, post-animalistic self-consciousness, as opposed to a spontaneous “reflex,” and it is only when the aborted gesture itself becomes intentional, acquires a form, that language begins. Once this discovery is made by the “first” signers, it will understandably be understood, and consciously imitated, by the remainder of the group.
Having given the term firstness this new meaning, I have since used it to refer to the problematic element in the human condition that conflicts with the originary moral model and makes this model impossible to maintain—the felix culpa that has permitted us to advance beyond the nakedness of Eden, as the biblical tradition understands it. But my use of the term has been somewhat ambiguous, given its conflation of (1) temporal precedence and (2) hierarchical superiority; it requires a more rigorous definition.
The most primitive understanding of firstness must in fact be as anterior to its exercise in the performance of the originary sign. Which is to say that the “first” user of the sign was not merely the inaugurator of what subsequently became a collective act, but the first to realize his own firstness, a product of the néant of deferral/différance, the universal human quality that Sartre called la liberté, but which he failed to understand to be mutually dependent on the individual’s participation in a community with which he can communicate via shared signs. Sartre’s depiction of the pour-soi that intends its objects, separated from them by a néant of freedom, is in fact a scenic figuration of the human self or soul. The human individual cannot preexist this community, let alone come together with other individuals to institute it via a “social contract.”
Even if in principle only one person can be the first to perform a collective act, what he discovers/reveals is that we are all “first,” in the sense that the scene of representation we are witnessing as a community can only function because we have the means not simply to reproduce it but intend it in our individual minds.
Language is a communal activity only because it is also an individual activity. If the sign has no meaning to me, it cannot have a communal meaning; the very notion of “meaning” disappears, and we are merely speaking of pre-human mimesis. But it goes without saying that if every human being is “first,” the mimetic rivalry that the first sign helped defer remains a permanent feature of the human condition. Once we have language, we can no longer envisage doing without it, for we need it all the more.
This redefinition of the duality of moral equality and firstness makes clearer the interdependence of its elements, as well as their necessary tension. Each human being is both an “equal” member of the communal scene of representation and “free” within his own. Or to reconfigure Rousseau’s terms, if “man is born free,” then he is at the same time “in chains,” because our freedom can only exercise itself in the context of a social order that restrains it.
On the other hand, to deny the element of individual freedom from either a sociological or a psychological perspective is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Calling this freedom “firstness” has the advantage of reminding us of the paradoxical priority possessed by each human being in tandem with his inevitable lateness with respect to the human community into which he is born.
This clarification of firstness allows us a clearer understanding of the difference between equalitarian and hierarchical societies. No doubt, from a sociological perspective, we can associate the “fall of man” with Rousseau’s “Le premier qui dit ‘ceci est à moi’”, that is, with the origin of private property, and more specifically with the Neolithic Revolution and sedentary agriculture. But it is faithful neither to Genesis nor to anthropology to consider “inequality” as simply absent from Rousseau’s état de nature, which he associates—rather vaguely given the limits of anthropological knowledge in his day—with the hunter-gatherer phase of human development.
Nor did Rousseau imply that these “first” humans had no selfish tendencies. But in this primitive state, no man could permanently dominate another:
[R]oaming through the forests without industry [technique], without language [or] domicile . . . with no need of [my] fellows . . .
[i]f I am driven away from one tree, I can just find another; if I am harassed in one place, who can prevent me from going elsewhere? (Discours sur l’origine . . . de l’inégalité, Part I, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Discours_sur_l%E2%80%99origine_et_les_fondements_de_l%E2%80%99in%C3%A9galit%C3%A9_parmi_les_hommes , p. 266, 269 (my translation)
That following Rousseau’s heritage, anthropologists have been led to view hunter-gatherers as “noble savages” can hardly be blamed on Jean-Jacques himself.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 419, it is no accident that in Genesis the serpent addresses himself to Eve rather than Adam. What is traditionally understood as a piece of “patriarchal” misogyny reflects rather a profound anthropological intuition: the resentment that the serpent exploits in Eve points to her exclusion from the administration of the sacred, and no doubt in the beginning, from language itself, as demonstrated by the persistence of this sexual difference in relation to the sacred even in our gender-neutral age.
It should be sufficient to refer to the biological difference between the sexes to explain this difference, with man’s biological secondarity compensated for by the greater capacity for violence which in turn necessitated his cultural firstness. But in today’s ideology-infected anthropology, explaining anything is immediately denounced as justifying it—as is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the constant reference to the “disease” of antisemitism.
The most valuable result of emphasizing the universality of human firstness as the source of the romanticized “freedom” of the existentialists, as well as of the originally-sinful Judeo-Christian concept, is that it provides an ethical alternative to subjecting social institutions to a “woke” moralistic critique.
The hierarchy begun by the big-man and his “surplus” is not a violation of “moral law,” because there is no moral law. Laws, rules, norms, are elements of ethics, not of morality. Our moral equality is not violated by the fact that society rewards (and penalizes) humans differentially, or sets some in command of others.
Socialism, the label that accompanied the greatest horrors of the past century and persists into our own, is continually resuscitated under many variants, but its fundamental characteristic is that it pretends to impose on the world the ethic of the originary event as if it were implicit in its morality.
The difference between Hitler’s national socialism, which considered the “Aryans” as the only genuine human community and the others as at best potential slaves, and Stalin’s international socialism, which split hairs over “socialism in one country” while starving millions of Ukrainians, is secondary, as is the degree of “equality” present in either society—as though the USSR was any more “egalitarian” than Nazi Germany.
Nor is it of any significance that the Marxian ideal supposedly implies the “withering away” of the state. The “socialist” polity need not in any way embody material or moral equality. The ideology of socialism serves first as a critique of the (presumably “capitalist”) society it wishes to destroy, and if this destruction succeeds, to justify the ruthlessness of its privileged “vanguard” as a necessary prelude, via “breaking a few eggs,” to “building Communism”… or the Thousand-Year Reich.
Justifying social inequality has always been, and presumably always will be, problematic. Because moral equality is the foundation of every human community, social differences will inevitably generate resentments, and no ethic can satisfy all of them. Nor can any exercise of “moral philosophy” provide a rule of thumb that will resolve their demands either at the individual level or at that of social institutions. It is no coincidence that John Rawls, whose effort in this domain has been the most widely acclaimed, makes use of a fiction that anticipates the originary hypothesis (see Chronicle 322).
Human history, with all its folly, is what made the world we live in. The idea that we could have spared ourselves the trouble by implementing a priori some utopian formula is, like the socialist ideology that exploits this illusion, an extension of the negation of history in favor of “reason” inaugurated by the French Revolution.
This negation is itself a part of history, and I would argue, a necessary part, given that the tension born in the Revolution between right and left, conservatism and “liberalism,” resistance to change and impatience with the present, provided that “jaw-jaw” not give way to “war-war,” is the principle of the liberal-democratic politics that has been the effective motor of all modern societies.
Until today. The dissolution of the USSR in 1989-91 was a triumph for the Burkeans of the West over the totalitarian ideologues who were their only rivals. Although this seemed at the time to demonstrate the definitive superiority of the liberal-democratic “worst system with the exception of all the others,” with the American Constitution as its most explicit realization, this is now becoming increasingly uncertain.
Over the past decade, China has come to provide an example of a different road to economic and geopolitical success. Its politico-economic system has acquired an unprecedented degree of plausibility as a totalitarian alternative to the liberal-democratic model. China operates as a strictly hierarchical polity claiming total control over all aspects of life that relate in any way to public policy, while allowing a considerable degree of market freedom to both producers and consumers.
We will have to leave to future historians, to the extent that they may continue to exist, this task of analyzing this system in detail. For the moment, the crucial point of comparison between the Western and the Chinese system is in their degree of respect for the principle of meritocracy. I feel confident in relying on David P. Goldman/“Spengler”’s analyses on this matter, as a Westerner who among his many other qualifications has a first-hand knowledge of China and an awareness of its history.
The digital revolution that we have lived with for the past three or four decades has created a historical watershed. It has vastly enhanced the economic value of symbol-manipulation, roughly equivalent to the principle of “general intelligence” as measured by IQ tests, over all other human abilities. As a result of this revolution, as Charles Murray’s 2012 Coming Apart showed so graphically, the fictional universes of “professional” Belmont and “working-class” Fishtown have been increasingly separated, not merely by income but by family stability and opportunities for social mobility.
We are far from the postwar boom economy that I and my younger “boomer” associates were able to profit from, in which skilled labor was rewarded on a comparable level to what were then called “white collar” jobs, united in a middle-class America whose remnants subsist in the flyover land of Trump-voting deplorables. It is because the “digital divide,” in contrast to the expansion of the degrees of freedom available in the consumer market, increasingly puts a premium on measurable “merit,” that Western societies, America in particular, have been driven to seek increasingly irrational explanations for the different levels of achievement among ascriptive groups.
As Goldman points out in a recent essay, “Why the Chinese Don’t Have Opinions,” https://pjmedia.com/spengler/2020/09/02/why-the-chinese-dont-have-opinions-n878186 , for millennia, China has been run by a “vertical hierarchy,” which he describes as today “a self-selecting committee of bureaucrats cherrypicked from the top 1/10th of 1% of university entrance exam scores.” In other words, a strict meritocracy. Although Goldman himself declares, “I won’t live in such a system,” his real point is that “it is a catastrophic error to underestimate the Chinese.” This is not something that I believe he would have said in the days of the Cold War with the USSR. We never underestimated the Russians, but rather tended to overestimate them, until Reagan realized that it was a “war” that we could win, and without firing a shot. But Russia-USSR was fundamentally a Western country; China is different.
The success of East Asian students in American universities, which “privilege” has led to their racialist disadvantaging in relation to both whites and blacks, is very much a product of a mindset that agrees to measure merit, at least at the outset, by test results. As an alumnus of the Bronx High School of Science (who hopes it can retain its objective entrance exam, under threat by De Blasio, at a time when Asians have replaced Jews—something like 85% of the BHSS population in my day—as its dominant ethnic group), I can attest to the sense of collective pride that comes from knowing that, whatever our race or gender, we all passed the test.
In China, as to a lesser extent in some other East Asian countries, this has been part of the national ethos since the beginning. Whereas in the US, and elsewhere in the West—in France, the baccalauréat, which a generation ago was a selection procedure for a near-elite, has now become the bac pour tous with a 95% passing rate, and this year, for the first time since its creation in the days of Napoleon, has simply dispensed with the final examination that had loomed over all previous lycéens from their first day in seconde—objective testing is increasingly “canceled” by “woke” institutions fearful of exposing their racial quota systems.
I apologize for referring once more to my “critique of pure fairness” (“Originary Democracy and the Critique of Pure Fairness,” in The Democratic Experience and Political Violence, ed. David Rapoport and Leonard Weinberg, London: Frank Cass, 2001, 308-24), but although its principle seems obvious, I have yet to see it enunciated anywhere in the “conversation” that our “public intellectuals” carry on in the media. It is simply this: it’s a lot easier to lose when it’s not supposed to be fair.
A peasant need not feel, and in a Christian society should not feel, morally inferior to a king. They were born to different destinies, but purely as human beings, they cannot be ranked. All the less so in the strict caste system of old India. Even the society of Brave New World, where everyone begins life in a category from Alpha to Epsilon, avoids direct comparison between its different members. Whereas if we all take the same test… Perhaps the sort of odd geniuses the West tends to produce may lose out in China, but competition on the global level is based on overall results.
Thus it may well be that the “digital divide,” coupled with the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, will prove to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. What Michael Sandel calls the “tyranny of merit,” without offering a remedy other than an abstract assertion of moral equality (see https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_sandel_the_tyranny_of_merit/transcript ), points ironically to the raison-d’être of Chinese superiority. Only “tyranny,” la manière forte, can impose a real meritocracy, not because those on top don’t “merit” their position, nor because they impose excessive hardships on the rest of the population, but simply because of the resentment that true meritocracy generates.
As contrapositive proof, I need only cite the sad fact that, in the dominant public discourse, if not in the hearts of our citizenry, the Booker T. Washington-Martin Luther King vision of racial equality (“content of their character”) is dead. On the contrary, what the French call la discrimination positive has made race relations into a powerful source of “woke” faith in the epistemology of resentment as the only acceptable criterion for inter-group relations of any kind.
That, as we learned in 2016, Donald J. Trump is the only significant Western politician who, by following his “instincts,” has steadfastly opposed this victimary tendency, is greatly to his credit, but only marginally to that of the rest of our society. That President Trump, as the never-Trumpers never fail to bewail, lacks the aplomb of the seasoned political hack, of which Joe Biden in his present state is a pitiable caricature, is precisely why he will go down in history—if history in a sense other than that of 1984 continues to exist—as a heroic figure, larger than life, and for all his tweets and petulance, ten times the embodiment of true humanity of any of his critics.
But the real question is whether history will continue to exist, or whether the age-old Chinese examination system, after a millennium of stagnation, will emerge as the next dominant world-system. Its founding principle is simply that if you choose those who are objectively the best, regardless of the details of the test to which they are subjected; if you teach your youth, not that there are no losers at T-Ball, but that childhood is a training period for acquiring basic skills at the highest possible level, you will not only produce a Yuja Wang rather than a Milo Yiannopoulos (“Spengler”’s examples of Chinese vs Western idiosyncrasy; see Chronicle 664), but a population of skilled and disciplined workers, not of resentful rioters, and that, regardless of the cruelty of your political regime, this population’s greater competence will overwhelm the degraded freedom of their rivals—after which, perhaps, much of the cruelty may no longer be necessary.
I do hope this is not in the cards. Certainly generative anthropology, as an example of Western thought, would be altogether inconceivable, let alone acceptable, in China.
But the West doesn’t seem to need GA. What it does need, apparently, is to sink its Judeo-Christian heritage ever deeper in the cesspool of White Guilt. Let’s see how much longer we will have the luxury of this virtuous endeavor.