In Chronicle 681, I proposed that the originary experience of the sacred was as a will countering our individual desires but permitting the peaceful distribution of food among the original human group. The notion of sacred will is crucial, since it must be distinguished from the prehuman intentionality that we attribute to animals or even to natural phenomena, the sense that what we see of them now tells us what they “intend” to do in the immediate future. The sacred exists only in the context of a scene-preserving intention; sacrality is never independent of the scenic nature of the human.
The sacred will is experienced as the interdiction of the central object of the scene. We can understand that the members of the group would “naturally” defer their intention to appropriate the object in the face of the danger represented by their fellows’ parallel intentions. But what is not explicable in terms of fear, inhibition, etc., is the exchange of signs around the central object—an expense of time and energy—that realizes and memorializes the “significance,” that is, the sacrality of the object.
If in the Alpha-Beta configuration, the higher-ranked members of the group acted serially as obstacles until each individual’s turn was reached, and could be challenged if so desired to single or perhaps factional combat, in the originary scene, the sacred force of dissuasion has no source within the peripheral proto-human group, but is concentrated in the scenic center itself.
The obvious reason why the “will” of the central object is experienced differently from that of an animal obeying its instincts, or a rock, the force of gravity, is that the object itself is immobile; it does not threaten us or resist our accession. On the contrary, the scenic configuration gives each participant a clear path to the center. That they are at the same time prevented from following this path is experienced as the effect of a repellent force, a sacred will centered in the object.
The sense of the sacred is thus defined experientially by the contrast between the absence of apparent sources of dissuasive force and the force itself. It is similar to the mimetic “aura” that emanates from a celebrity who becomes the unprompted center of a public scene.
The participants in the originary event discover their desire for the object at the same time as they experience the will that interdicts it—for the sense of interdiction is inherent in the notion of desire. The sacred nature of this interdiction, that is, its dependence on an alien will, implies that the act/sign of renunciation is directed to the other members of the group only through the mediation of the central object and of the force of interdiction that inhabits it. My exchange of the sign with the other members of the group is incidental to my communication to the sacred will interdicting the central object/being. Thus the reciprocal exchange of signs is always-already a rite in which the community recognizes its unity in its resentful acknowledgement of the sacred’s self-manifestation.
As the prolonged peaceful nature of the scene diminishes the center’s interdictive effect, the intuition that the sacred would permit its collective appropriation gains momentum. Provided that they do so symmetrically, the members of the group are able to approach the center without incident, and the collective dismembering of the animal can then take place without conflict so long as no one reaches into another’s “territory.” Given the evidence of such feasts in observed hunter-gatherer societies, and their prolongation in our own, it is clear that the whole process, from identifying, renouncing, and signing to and “about” the sacred central figure, to dividing it up, is understood as carrying out this sacred will, which provides the solution to the peaceful distribution of nourishment essential to the group’s survival.
The element of truth in my old formulation that the originary idea of God is as the “subsisting center of the scene” is that this center as focus of attention survives its impermanent occupant—but not simply as a “place,” rather as the apparent source of the interdictive sacred will. The division of the central animal continues to be presided over by the sacred, which interdicts any attempt at “inequality.” This scenic configuration will persist in communal memory as the model for future such distributions. The scene once created, like the sign that designates its center, will remain with humans as long as humanity exists.
The human community is, as the first humans discover, not held together sufficiently by “instinct”; its members are “too mimetic” to let the process of biological evolution deal with their potential conflicts. Thus to the group’s practical needs, requiring the development of skills of active cooperation, say in a hunting party or in a battle with a rival group, is added the new factor of coherence independent of the specific task at hand. The discovery of the originary scene is not a new skill or “technique” of dealing with nature, but a new sense of community under the aegis of the sacred will. Thus added to the organizational problems of obtaining food, shelter, etc. is the problem of insuring the endurance of this will that protects the community from internal conflict.
Defining the human as the one species that is a greater danger to itself than the dangers of the outside world is a tribute to its higher intelligence, and at the same time an avowal of its lack of self-sufficiency. If humans are alone in conceiving the sacred, it is because they alone need to appeal to a will beyond their own to assure the dominance of centripetal communal values over the centrifugal ones of the community’s individual members.
This division is expressed institutionally in that between religion and “politics.” The maintenance of communal unity through repetitions of the originary scene can clearly not be a daily activity. The practical affairs of the human group must be decided on a day-to-day basis, and to be effective, decisions must be made in function of specific needs, not of ritual patterns. Thus from the beginning the human group must have a “politics” as well as a “religion.”
Taking the originary scene as its point of departure, the human community, like the remaining hunter-gatherer societies, would presumably have maintained a rough egalitarian symmetry in its “political” decision-making model, limiting to marked occasions the ritual repetition of the originary scene itself, whether centered on an animal or other object of value to distribute, or in anticipation of finding such an object—for example, using the hunting scenes of Paleolithic cave-paintings as their backdrop.
The hierarchization of society following the Neolithic Revolution would have followed a similar pattern; the hierarchy of religious and political authority, having the same origin, would remain linked. As I observed in The End of Culture (1985) following Marshall Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics, the “big-man” as the minimal model of a political leader began by dominating the clan system of ritual distribution, taking over the central role in the ceremonial feasts previously shared on a circulating basis as a result of his greater productivity. We can assume that with the growing complexity and hierarchical ordering of ancient agricultural societies over the millennia, the sacred and secular elements evolved in tandem.
In the final stage of this process, the rigid hierarchies of the ancient empires are antipodal to the symmetry of power in hunter-gatherer societies. But in neither case was there any space between the political and the religious order. The celebration of the sacred embodied in the Pharaoh or similar figure, including his role as intercessor with higher gods, mirrored the political structure.
Yet throughout this evolution, whatever the taboo against resenting the Pharaoh, we can be sure that the “sense of justice” among social equals was much the equivalent of our own. The moral model of the originary scene, overlaid with hierarchical structures, was never lost; it is inherent in language, and in the human condition.
In contrast to these “compact” (Voegelin) empires, the separation between morality and ethics, heaven and earth, God and Caesar, implicit in Judeo-Christian ethics from the beginning, was made explicit in Christianity as the worship of the Crucified. It permitted the secularization of civil society, the liberation of everyday political and economic decision-making from the constraints of ritual, leading to the emergence of the “Westphalian” European nation-states in which was born the modern world of science, industry, and market exchange.
But with the increasing emphasis on the conquest of nature by the scientific method, the hitherto acceptable religious accounts of creation and natural history lost credibility as sources of legitimacy for human social institutions. An inchoate new mode of politico-religious order emerges in the French Revolution as the inverse of sacred kingship. Rather than regarding the societal ethic as the embodiment of sacred morality, the new political religion finds its moral criterion in an epistemology of resentment that affirms as its sole ethical criterion our sense of injustice at the violation of moral equality, according to which it condemns and seeks to overthrow the established social order, including the religious practices complicit with it.
The hubris implicit in thus rejecting all existing social differences and beginning again from scratch—the French even attempted to restart the world calendar in 1792—was noted in the very first year of the Revolution, in Edmond Burke’s 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke had earlier supported the American Revolution, which had largely retained the British political structures of the colonial governments, eliminating only the caste-system of king and nobility—and leaving Southern slavery for future generations.
The resentment of the sans-culottes and bourgeoisie of the Third Estate against the privileges of the nobility, privileges no longer justified by their ancestral role as military leaders, are easy enough to understand, as is that of the Russian people in 1917. But today’s political religion of wokeness, arising not among society’s least fortunate but in its dominant classes, and motivated not by their own resentment, but by the anticipated resentment of their “victims,” is unique in history. The genius of wokeness is that, as in the days of the Comité de salut public, the “privileged” are asked to do penance—but without losing either their heads or their privileges.
Whereas the French revolutionaries worshiped the Goddess of Reason and replaced the chaos of traditional weights and measures by the metric system, the woke decry mathematics as “white” and reject the idea that there is a “correct” answer to a math problem. Where the French inaugurated a system of strict examinations for entrance into its elite academies, the woke protest merit-based admissions as a mark of racism—and today’s French have been gradually dismantling their “elitist” system over the decades.
The digitization of the modern economy and its emphasis on symbol-manipulation over not only the manipulation of nature (agriculture, mining) but of machines, makes strangely apparent the paradox that I enunciated in “Originary Democracy and the Critique of Pure Fairness” (The Democratic Experience and Political Violence, London: Frank Cass, 2001, 308-24): It’s much easier to accept losing if you can claim the system is biased against you.
Over the centuries, civilizations evolved caste systems, generally less rigid than that of traditional India, but real nonetheless. The French examinations are open to all, but one cannot deny that the son or daughter of someone who has previously passed one of them is far more likely to do the same than the child of a worker or storekeeper.
The postwar prosperity made opportunities for all, but the digital era has made clear the advantages of higher education. It teaches those successful in the digital economy that they are indeed privileged, not by “race,” but by their parents’ status and educational level: professional Belmont vs working-class Fishtown, in Charles Murray’s 2012 Coming Apart, which avoids the race question by confining itself to whites alone. Yet there are no longer differences of legal status to eliminate, as in the days when the “Third Estate” railed against the nobility and the Catholic clergy, or American blacks protested racial discrimination.
Claiming that 2+2=5 is not a “wrong” answer is an expression of frustration, not so much by ordinary folks who would never have thought of such an idea, but by the well-meaning professionals who, in a strange but recognizable form of “the white man’s burden,” think that condemning “their own” racism, which really means that of Trump supporters and other “deplorables,” they are taking a step toward resolving the caste-like divide between MIT graduates and those stuck in inner-city schools, whose teachers want to be paid during the COVID epidemic for not teaching children whose mothers are prevented from forming normal families by the welfare system.
Wokeness appears on the way to conquering all the Western nations still called “liberal democracies.” I am struck both by the success of the supposedly “American” ideas of race and gender in Europe and by the paralysis they inspire in the traditional leaders of these countries, a bit less ready than ours to be awokened. On February 26, the lead headline of Le Figaro, a conservative but mainstream French newspaper, denounced the precepts of wokeness as Ces nouveaux dogmes qui veulent s’imposer en France [These new dogmas that want to impose themselves in France].
Not coincidentally, America’s main rival for world leadership is no longer to be found in the liberal camp (a role that Japan seemed destined to play a couple of decades ago), but in an increasingly monolithic Chinese dictatorship where, as in previous “socialist” paradises, the sacred, although called by other names, is fully identified with the political hierarchy. Nonetheless, unlike previous attempts at socialist governance, China appears to have found a way to combine sacralized state power with growing success in, and potential dominance of, global market society. Certainly China’s vigorous nationalism—in a nation that has lived under authoritarian hierarchies for millennia—is a powerful antidote to the real and vicarious resentments that fuel wokeism.
In this context of this unpalatable dichotomy, woke America or totalitarian China, it is not altogether a coincidence to find that Chinese-Americans point the way to a third alternative. The most forthright condemnation I have seen of the woke intelligentsia’s “Critical Race Theory” is this document, promulgated by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY), and headed “Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a hateful, divisive, manipulative fraud.” Unlike guilt-ridden whites, Asians as “people of color” have no compunction in denouncing the policies that penalize them as “white-adjacent” for their academic and career success.
I can remember when UCLA was called the University of Caucasians Lost among Asians, a grudgingly admirative pleasantry that would likely get one “canceled” today. But whereas UC is not about to limit its Asian admissions, this is not the case in the Ivy League, where the recent lawsuit brought by Asian students against Harvard was turned down, or in most college admissions offices.
Just as the greatness of Western civilization is most simply explained by Christianity’s success in maintaining an overall spiritual unity among a creative diversity of peoples and social systems, so the United States has been for the past century the flagship nation of the West because it has been able to blend together the world’s diversity of populations in a single nation.
As my old UCLA colleague Ivan Light, a sociologist who had studied the success of Asian immigrants, would remind us, in the 19th century Chinese “coolie” railroad workers were treated no better than black slaves, and Chinese neighborhoods were feared as scary places run by criminal gangs. And this is not to speak of the many Japanese-Americans who lost their homes and livelihoods during WWII, while German and Italian-Americans suffered no similar penalties.
Asian-Americans are the successors of the Irish, German, Scandinavian, Jewish and other hyphenated Americans who, having first been subject to prejudice, have over the years been assimilated into the mainstream of the American population. A similar phenomenon is observed today among Mexican-Americans, and among recent immigrants from Africa. There are no “racial” barriers to excellence.
No doubt African-Americans descended from slaves have a long and deep history of grievances. But their path to success, and that of other minorities, is the same as that of their Asian-American fellow citizens: not that of Critical Race Theory, but of E pluribus unum.