As its name makes clear, Generative Anthropology is a science of beginnings, of January rather than December. Given its somewhat cynical watchword, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” it emphasizes not the wonder of language as a liberation of the mind but the necessity of its discovery in order that our increasingly mimetic species be able to survive.
And as the previous Chronicle suggests, the same is true of religion. Müller saw it as a celebration of God’s handiwork; we understand it as an outlet for the resentments that would otherwise have destroyed us.
This understanding of our beginnings allows us to understand as well the sense of impending doom that has always accompanied human progress. The apocalyptic element of religion is a direct reflection of its origin in deferral. God’s role in human lives is most fundamentally that of forestalling the tendency of mimetic desire to self-destruction. Our gratitude malgré tout for this gift of life encourages the believer to anticipate a Last Judgment where, after our temporary sojourn on Earth, the moral balance sheet of each individual is evaluated for eternity.
But now that the prophecies of apocalypse have been given practical force by the invention of weapons powerful enough to eradicate the human species, they can no longer be dismissed as figments of the religious imagination. That we have so far been spared from self-destruction by the différance that has enabled our fuite en avant is no guarantee that we can stay indefinitely ahead of our shadow. This new condition has initiated a qualitatively new stage of the historical process.
In Chronicle 638 and a number of other recent Chronicles, I have tried to show that, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima capped the 20th century’s series of pre-apocalyptic events, “French Theory,” including not just post-structuralism but the writings of Girard (whose work deserves a more appropriate label than “mimetic theory”), constituted the most significant body of pre-post-metaphysical anthropological thinking, and that Generative Anthropology, as the synthesis and heir to these twin tendencies, is potentially the most significant thought of our times.
But if significance is ultimately equivalent to sacrality, both are grounded, not in some abstract criterion of knowledge, but in the capacity to save humanity from itself. To claim supreme significance for an idea is to claim that it is the most able to defer our species’ potential for self-destruction.
The religious attitude, however we evaluate the specific revelations brought forth by the different religions, attributes to divine will the deferral of self-destruction that GA finds in the discovery of the sign and its consequences. In either case, the course of human history must be explained as a series of adaptations that, whatever their material benefits—longer life, freedom from pain, richer set of experiences…—have as their underlying purpose to defer the danger of mutual self-destruction.
In the last analysis, it is the possibility of “salvation,” for the human community if not for the individuals that compose it, that permits the faithful to understand the sacred as worthy of love rather than of the resentful respect offered it by Achilles (see Chronicle 681). Achilles’ attitude is that of worldly common sense, whereas the Judeo-Christian love of God depends on our willingness to respond to the gift of life with our own gift of faith.
The Christian West has thrived on the basis of this faith. The hope that we can defer our retribution until the Last Judgment enriches the circulation of credit that began with Mauss’s don with additional degrees of freedom, and was instrumental in the West’s primacy in the development of a bourgeois economy. Similarly, its liberal-democratic political system is an expression of faith in the power of community’s best interest to bring together the diverse interests of its members in a single will: e pluribus unum.
Both branches of French Theory were focused on victims.
The post-structuralist critique of metaphysics saw language not as a neutral tool, but as in the first place an instrument of oppression, granting to a human occupant of the scenic center the power to impose his “presence” and thereby his power. Derrida’s powerful notion of deferral/différance was not intended as an analysis of the Sartrean pour-soi, but rather as a deconstruction of this “presence,” denounced for its illusory absence of deferral.
Girard’s own originary hypothesis is based on the identification of the scapegoat/sacrificial victim with Christ. But his postwar pessimism was grounded in his judgment that Nazism had “demoralized” the Christian West’s concern for victims, making it “caricatural” (See Chronicle 427). The course of Western history since he wrote those lines in 1999 has only confirmed his insight.
The souci des victimes stems from Christianity’s deepest intuition, that the human self and its culture is the product of the shared resentment of the sacred that culminated in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. This resentment had previously been the only means of generating the necessary love for one’s fellow man, to be superseded by faith in the Father who was willing to sacrifice his own Son.
If this faith has now been corrupted, what hope remains for the continued reign of Christianity in the West, even in “secularized” form? How is our culture to be cleansed of the victimary excesses that have reached the point of not only grading examinations on the basis of race, but of justifying looting and burglary? Or does even these remain venial sins in comparison to the monolithic cruelty of Chinese communism?
This is the fundamental political question of our times.
Communism, Marxism, socialism, or whatever else it may be called, is a Western, that is, fundamentally a Judeo-Christian ideology. Its very critique of religion is merely a modification of it. Marx’s utopian vision of communism, where everyone follows his own inclinations and the energies of all, in the absence of any kind of coercion, blend harmoniously in a thriving economy, depends on a quasi-cybernetic, “materialist” version of the One God who, finally fully satisfied with his creation, has retreated to the 18th century role of the craftsman who needs only set the world in motion, his anticipatory wisdom sufficing to maintain the harmony of the whole. However cynically deferred, the “withering away of the state” remains defined as the blissful fulfillment of communism.
China’s adoption of Western communism is of course not independent of its status as the world’s longest-enduring empire. But the two dominant political forces of the day (with Islam as a “third force” that continues to threaten the West while being straightforwardly oppressed in China) are most simply understood as two offshoots of Judeo-Christianity, the victimary liberalism of the West and the totalitarian communism of the East.
From a nationalist perspective, the backwardness of China, exacerbated by Mao’s economically illiterate schemes, provided a great opportunity for the reasonably effective market policies introduced by Deng, which Xi has built on to great effect. In contrast, the West, after winning the Cold War, has been distracted by the horror of 9/11 into focusing, mostly ineffectively, on the Middle East. As a result, the “end of history” in 1989-91 has now been followed by its resurrection, with “Xi Jinping Thought” defining a second round of the contest between capitalism and socialism.
The tension between God and Caesar, the transcendental and the worldly, which permitted the West to evolve a market economy, science, and technology, has in the digital era morphed into a tension between the global market, which transcends national and cultural boundaries, and the nation-state, loyalty to which in Western countries is increasingly contested by “critical” race and gender theories that condemn the West’s “imperialism” and deny any virtue to national patriotism.
The upshot of this development is that, curiously enough, the Western elites have come to implement the same resentment against “white” Western culture that motivates Chinese nationalism. Throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, China’s experience of Western domination provided a historical basis for this resentment. Whereas today’s globalist Western elite, no longer loyal to their specific nations but seeking worldwide markets for their (increasingly digital) products, view anti-“white” ideology both as a marketing tool and as an opportunity for virtue-signaling that by denouncing their racial privilege, guarantees their economic advantage. In particular, given the size of the Chinese market, many international corporations, notably in the entertainment industry, censure any hint of dissatisfaction with Chinese human-rights violations in Hong Kong or elsewhere.
In an era when the West’s world domination was not yet contested, John Rawls’ 1971 Theory of Justice was the most lucid exposition of its postwar ethic before the victimary distortions of woke politics. Rejecting Caiaphas’ “it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people” (John 11:50), this theory takes its fundamental criterion from the secularized Christian idea that the freedom of a society can be measured only by the status of the “least advantaged” within it.
This goal remained abstract in the days of Rawls, but it nourished a victimary mindset that has come to fruition in the digital era. By a curious irony, the West’s victimary narrative, reinforced by images from cell-phone cameras, has engendered a “surveillance society” parallel to that of China, but inversely related to the central power. While Chinese surveillance functions to enforce the police power of the central government, our own version, directed at delegitimizing the police and social authority in general as oppressors of society’s victims, condemns the systemic injustice of Western civilization on the basis of selected videos.
There is no doubt in which of the two societies most of us would rather live, and the very existence of a “counter-culture” is a sign of freedom sorely lacking in a totalitarian state. But no civilization can survive in which concern for its purported victims comes to outweigh concern for the civilization itself. The passion for moral equality cannot overcome the respect for firstness.