The previous Chronicle brought out a curious opposition, exemplified by the different receptions of Girard and Derrida, on the one hand, and GA, on the other, between two forms of dépassement: the deconstructive strategy of Girard and Derrida with regard to our common-sense attitudes toward, respectively, desire and “speech,” and what I called GA’s “sacrilegious” affirmation that the origin of language and the sacred—the components of what we call the human soul—can be understood in anthropological terms—that is, that transcendence can in fact be understood in terms of immanence. This is quite different from the atheistic denial that any such soul exists, or that humans are transcendent with respect to the rest of the universe and/or that their emergence from the animal world poses a unique problem—figured by the Rubicon metaphor applied to human language by Max Müller in 1870—to Darwinian evolution.
Atheism avoids sacrilege; it leaves the sacred intact, as an Other domain. Whether this domain is felt to be too sacred to approach, or pooh-poohed as a fantastic appendage to everyday reality, the result is the same; the sacred remains untouched by the tools we use to explore the “real world.” GA denies this dichotomous ontology: the sacred is a new level of being within the same underlying ontology as the matter from which it emerges. Anthropology, in a word, is generative.
Understood in this manner, GA is far more revolutionary than first appears, and its banishment from the world of scientific discourse can no longer be described, as empirical social scientists are wont to do, as resistance to a naively eccentric—in a word, crackpot—doctrine. On the contrary, this resistance is motivated by humanity’s most profound taboo, which protects the sacrality of the sacred, not simply against metaphysical rationality, but against the indefinitely recursive power of human language.
GA is not the equivalent of a religion, but a secular complement to the great axial religions—and one that can provide an antidote to the “secular religions,” founded on the epistemology of resentment, that have plagued the world since the French Revolution.
This obliges us to reflect on the tension between “science” and “politics” that the social sciences have done their best to avoid. It intersects with Francis Fukuyama’s post-1989 thesis that the West’s victory in the Cold War was the realization of Hegel’s “end of history,” a thesis I have continued to defend in a limited, pragmatic sense, the extravagance of the “end of history” being precisely the kind of metaphysical construction that provoked the critique of metaphysics that has dominated “Continental” philosophy ever since.
Today the role of “science” in political matters is a frequent matter of controversy, generally on a superficial, tactical level. Does “science” tell us that we should avoid using fossil fuels to reduce “climate change”? What about the immorality of eating meat taken from slaughtered animals? At least, in these domains the conclusions of empirical science can, with some effort, be separated from the political decisions they may be said to motivate. In other words, these are issues on which the “democratic process” can in principle effectively be used to structure the decision process, as we still see in the US and some other liberal democracies.
But the broader questions constantly raised today by Wokism, the redefinition of human equality as “equity” among white-male-privileged and various victimary categories, provide an increasingly clear demonstration that “scientific” conclusions are being exploited for political purposes rather than used as an objective basis for rational decisions. For example, fossil fuel extraction in the US and in Western Europe has been limited on the basis of “science” that has little objective relationship with the needs of the economies in question, as witness Biden’s shutdown of new fossil fuel production in the US leading to requests for fuel imports from unfriendly nations clearly unconcerned with “climate change.”
Given that the liberal-democratic system that Fukuyama saw as the ultimate solution to the Hegelian dialectic of political forms has led less to the kind of world envisaged by Western politicians before 9/11/2001 than to one where this system is increasingly under attack both from within by “Marxist” forces and from without by a redoubled growth of “socialist” despotisms and/or démocratures with vestigial liberal-democratic parliaments and elections, as students of humanity we cannot set this aside while we calmly seek out in the security of our offices and laboratories the “true” origins of human language and morality.
Thus far in the evolution of GA, I have not hidden my own views of contemporary politics, while seeking as far as possible to separate them from the fundamentals of human origin, leaving open the possibility of a “left GA” that Chris Fleming and others have sought to explore. A similar if less intellectually self-aware process has led the Girardians of COV&R to take increasingly left-wing positions, which in 2007 provoked the formation of what became the GASC in protest against what was perceived as naïve leftism rather than a “scientific” development of Girardian anthropology.
At the risk of leaving open a huge can of worms, I cannot avoid pointing out that the connection between GA and certain “scientific” positions cannot avoid being understood in political terms, hence becoming a hostage in the inescapably political conflict between the epistemology of resentment and that founded on the originary hypothesis. This is entirely consonant with a reasonable conception of liberal democracy as a mechanism for making and revising political decisions, that is, decisions that cannot reasonably be said to have “objective” solutions but depend on citizens’ subjective evaluations of priorities, always presumably in the context of the interest of society as a whole. This problem has been exacerbated by the course of history since 1989, which has failed to demonstrate the successful implementation of liberal democracy even in its homelands, in the face of the unmistakably increased prevalence of demagogic and dictatorial regimes.
How can this subject be dealt with without useless polemics? Political questions are by nature insoluble by other than political means; arguments can be settled only by votes, and although we cannot deny that democracies remain the universal choice of immigrants, and by all estimates the most attractive places to live, no political a priori can prevent their decline a la Venezuela into despotisms with unfree polities and unsuccessful economies. GA offers insight into the moral foundation of human society that provides justification for resistance to the false evidences of the epistemology of resentment. But such insight can be of use only if it remains possible to evoke the sense of a communal sacred that prioritizes the welfare of the human community, which remains today, despite our “globalism,” essentially that of individual nations.
Today the crucial point d’appui of the epistemology of resentment is the civilizational leadership of the Judeo-Christian (“white”) West. We witness virtually no large-scale expressions of public resentment that do not appeal to anti-white and/or post-colonial racialism and White Guilt. The common assimilation of the Jews of Israel to “European colonialists” in the face of historical reality and the most egregious corruption and malfeasance on the part of the Palestinian leadership can only be understood as reflecting a knee-jerk acceptance of this dichotomy, which while blaming the West a priori for any exercise of its historical invention of modernity, accurately points to the Jews as its distant founders.
There is no need to deny the crimes of colonialism, but its benefits should not be denied, nor simply the fact that having a more advanced civilization is the contrary of a manifestation of evil, as the epistemology of resentment insists. The persistence of post-colonial resentment and its extension to the West as a whole cannot lead to any positive outcome. Correcting the moral inequities of the past does not require excusing them, but the only solution is subjecting all individuals to the same criteria rather than compensating former losers by punishing the winners—M L King’s substitution of the “content of their character” for “the color of their skin.”
Of course the danger of any such analysis is the difficulty in distinguishing it from a “right” political position, which stands in opposition to the “left” position, and unlike even the eternal debate between theism and atheism, cannot be settled by a transcendental compromise. In a word, the position of GA is threatened by its political implications to the extent that in the current state of Western politics they cannot be defended as trans-political.
These questions have heretofore been dealt with in the intellectual world by postulating the permanence of categories of political thought, of which today’s standard example is conservative vs liberal/radical, with the right-left divergence of opinion being taken for granted along with the impossibility of coming to an agreement on a set of criteria that would permit their differences to be settled one way or the other. Nor is it coincidental that the more classically liberal the government involved, the more transparently this dichotomy is expressed in the political structure, with the American opposition between Republicans and Democrats the clearest of all, followed by that between Tories and Whigs/Labour in Britain.
In France, by contrast, the last decade has seen a surprising decline of the traditional left (socialist) and right (republican) parties in favor of a novel tension between the center, the party of President Macron, and the “extremes” of both sides, such that in the first round of this year’s presidential balloting, neither traditional socialists nor conservatives were able to reach even 5% of the votes, whereas Jean-Luc Mélanchon’s “Islamogauchiste” La France Insoumise and Marine le Pen’s de-stigmatized but still tabooed National Rally (Rassemblement) both scored over 20%, as compared with Macron’s 27+%. I rather doubt that this new alignment will remain permanent, or that it fundamentally transforms the left-right dichotomy, while clarifying the necessity of a centrist governing faction (currently challenged in parliament from both sides, not having received a clear majority). One factor potentially mitigating the hostility of the two “extremes” is that both are “populist,” with a similar interest in social programs, although appealing to different segments of the non-elite, as opposed to the upper/educated classes and retirees, who massively chose Macron’s “Renaissance” party, the successor name of La République en marche.
With these considerations in mind, we can attempt to derive some moral and incipiently “political” conclusions from the originary hypothesis. If some find any of them politically unacceptable, this should encourage them to modify either the hypothesis itself or the conclusions I draw from it in the direction of what I can best call their political instincts, in an attempt to create a “left” GA less in the spirit of polemics than in that of making precise what political presuppositions lie behind these different perspectives.
Humanity’s originary equality was grounded on the need to reduce the power of each individual to disrupt the distribution process on which the social order was founded. In our infinitely more complex societies, this power varies enormously among individuals, but the rule of law has always maintained a set of basic principles that keep order in the society. That today large numbers of officials have taken to allowing suspects to go free without bail and not even charging those suspected of “minor” crimes is an egregious violation of these principles. That such views are not instantly rejected demonstrates the inherent vice of the epistemology of resentment, which has no a priori view of communal order, but only reacts to the effects of its imposition, viewing the (often non-white) criminal suspect as a priori a victim of social conditions, etc., to whom the society owes tolerance of “minor” misdeeds.
No consistent anthropology can tolerate an overall view of the social order as “unjust,” “racist,” etc., such that its laws need not be obeyed until these supposed injustices are corrected. Political parties that accept such views cannot be permitted to present them as mere political choices. Denying the fundaments of the social order cannot be tolerated, and it is up to those who oppose these views to make this clear, so to speak, on a super-political level. That today’s Democratic Party promotes such views is a serious sign of the decay of our civilization.
GA cannot tell politicians when to bring up such points, but it can affirm, on an anthropological basis independent of Biblical authority, the incompatibility of such positions with the liberal democracy in which we purport to function, while pointing out that their neglect in many such democracies has led to their decline into démocratures such as we see in Russia or Turkey today.
Similarly, policies based on “disparate impact” and what the French more honestly than we call not “affirmative action” but discrimination positive are dangerous counter-examples to the principles of legal equality and should be highly restricted rather than, as at present under the demagogic pressure of “critical race theory,” expanded to the point of dominating the personnel processes of university administrations and the human resources departments of corporations. It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of minority politicians reacting against this “soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phenomenon that confirms the anthropological soundness of humanity’s universal fundamental equality. The Supreme Court’s overturning of the badly established “right to abortion” should serve as an example to future decisions concerning policies that discriminate on the basis of race.
What is important is to present these ideas as meta-political, as standing above the everyday debate between “right” and “left.” It is important that fundamental democratic principles be affirmed and taught to our children before the entire legal system reaches a point of no return, with the effects on our ability to defend our nations in the international realm that we can well imagine, a striking preview of which was displayed in our recent withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The August-September 2022 issue of First Things includes the text of a 7500-word address by Joshua Mitchell entitled “By the Sweat of Our Brow,” which deals with the West’s current crisis in Christian terms, coming to largely the same conclusions as above. I cannot deal with this text in detail, but its different underlying orientation allows me to bring out what I think are the advantages of GA’s perspective as means of sharpening the necessary political debate.
Mitchell describes the plight of a society dominated by “identity politics,” which he justifiably understands as a secular attempt to achieve purity by separating the sheep from the goats, or rather from the wolves, and by identifying the latter, Western White Males, as the bearers of sin from which people of color are thereby guaranteed to be free, and through identification with whom alone the white majority must endlessly seek to purge themselves of guilt. Along the way, the acolytes of this new religion must jettison the “white” value of competence and its apprenticeship in favor of virtue-signaling demonstrations, exemplified, in contrast to the daring 1969 Apollo program that first put humans on the moon, by the so-called Artemis program intended to “land the first woman and first person of color on the moon” by 2025. As Mitchell puts it, “the purpose of the Artemis program is not to develop life-risking technological advances that keep us one step ahead of our enemies, but to achieve equity in the aftermath of that patriarchal embarrassment, the manned Apollo program (36).”
Later in the essay, Mitchell returns to the question of “human nature, about which I have raised doubts (39).” After expressing skepticism concerning the lessons of the Bible, the Christian churches, philosophy, etc., he expresses doubt that “the old authorities” have any value for the contemporary Everyman he calls “Selfie Man,” “those whose only authority is themselves.” What is remarkable here is the absence of any reference to empirical science; “human nature” is presumably accessible only to religious or philosophical reflection. And his list of philosophers “[i]n the long aftermath of the Enlightenment, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Derrida” discover only humanity’s “dark motivations,” which is to say that this succession demonstrates only a negative understanding of “human nature” that is implicitly demonic.
It is at this point that GA can play a constructive role. Why is Mitchell so pessimistic about not merely the current course of our political history, but our ability to understand our own nature? Because science even in the broadest sense has abandoned human nature to post-metaphysical philosophy that can see only, as he puts it, “the animal that is in man.” And indeed, the political point of Derrida’s philosophy of language—as distinct from its far more significant anthropological implications—is that language is in the first place a means of imposing the speaker’s authority via an illusion of “presence.” With all his subtlety, Derrida is ultimately in accord with Michael Tomasello’s screed (see Chronicle 519): human culture, whether language or religion, is in the first place an illegitimate power-grab.
I think that Mitchell’s skepticism on this point is in fact the crux of his essay. Why indeed must “human nature” remain a terrain for prophets and philosophers from which even most modest science, and in particular, the “humanist science” of GA, is absent? After 200-odd years of anthropology, is this all that we can affirm about our own species?
GA’s originary hypothesis seeks to understand “human nature” from a standpoint anterior on the one hand to the universe of original sin and salvation, and on the other to that of Parmenides’ “way of truth.” The mere fact of constructing such a hypothesis of human origin forces us to face up to what has always been elided in even the most profound religious and metaphysical reflections on the human soul: the minimal conditions of its emergence from an animal state lacking in either language or the sacred.
Considering philosophy/metaphysics as our original attempt at a self-understanding independent of religious/revelatory intuitions, we might ask why Mitchell’s list of philosophers must end with “dark motivations” that can hardly be said to reflect an objective assessment of humanity’s achievements, and which reflect the negative element of revelation (“original sin”) without religion’s providential promise of redemption. Is it mere political prejudice that led Derrida to view the “presence” of verbal language as in the final analysis a means of imposing human inequality? Yet the opposition between a central speaker/leader and a “mass” of listeners is contrary to any conceivable scenario of the origin of language, which can only have been, as the originary hypothesis proposes, a scene of reciprocal exchange. And is not Christ’s scapegoat role (Mitchell’s frequent use of this term suggests to me the unacknowledged influence of Girard), despite its spiritual truth, contrary to all that we know about the egalitarian food distributions of the simplest societies?
Metaphysics not accidentally understands language as mature and propositional, a means for presenting information via propositions, whether true or false. The scene of such presentation can only be, like that of a lecture hall or of a political speech, a space of communication between a single speaker and a crowd of silent listeners, presumably mesmerized by the speaker’s illusory verbal “presence.” But the originary worldly sign must have been an ostensive, a verbal pointing, and such signs, as in our originary scenario, are reciprocally repeatable. Such a scenario, which might under different theoretical presuppositions vary from that of GA, would in any case provide a counter-example to the “dark motivations” of metaphysics—necessarily leading to conclusions that would refute rather than support the racial self-flagellation scenario imposed by American identity politics, which Mitchell rightly views as posing a serious threat to the exemplary nation whose destiny is most closely tied to that of Western civilization.
Whatever variants may be proposed, the only conceivable outcome of an event of human origin is success, not failure, festivity and not tragedy. That despite the mass of supportive evidence supplied by our Steven Pinkers, whose results, however convincing in themselves, never quite overcome our suspicion of Pollyanna superficiality, this conclusion causes such pain to our supposedly more profound thinkers, reflects the tension between religious and scientific consciousness that generative anthropology, if perforce unable simply to resolve it, can in any case finally understand. Whether or not such understanding can save us from apocalypse, extending humanity’s deferral for one more round, it at least deserves its chance.