GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 16, 2007

Victimary Statements; Statements of the Center

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:16 pm

Victimary discourse has its own critique of metaphysics, which I would translate into originary thinking as follows.  Victimary discourse is fundamentally anti-mimetic:  mimesis leads inexorably to violence, and victimary discourse has faith neither in Girard’s Christian transcendence of the scapegoat nor a transcendent sign such as that posited in Eric Gans’ originary scene–the latter, in particular, could be no more than a “cover-up” of the originary violence enacted behind and constitutive of the scene.  The primacy of the declarative sentence would, for such a stance, be abhored for its internalization of mimesis:  the possibility, constitutive of the declarative, that a “fictional” world could “imitate” the “real” one.  Such representation as imitation occludes the originary violence and even if the more sophisticated victimary thinker recognizes that the occlusion of violence is simultaneously an at least minimal mitigation of that violence, we can no longer accept that trade-off in good faith:  even at the possible price of our own destruction, the forgetting that we have forgotten the originary violence must be resisted. 

It also follows, then, that victimary discourse is just as terrified of the originary ostensive as metaphysics.  Indeed, victimary discourse is a kind of heretical, parasitical, sectarian breakaway formation, ever engaged in its shadow boxing with metaphysics.  It wouldn’t be quite right to characterize the victimary as “anti-declarative” (they are not about to boycott the sentence), but it does insist on “staining” the “mirror” of the ideal or fictional world of the declarative, which claims to represent “nature.”  A sentence can be stained in many ways.  Perhaps most obvious is Derrida’s Heideggerean (but quickly abandoned) placing of especially complicit words (above all, the copula) “under erasure.”  And there are the compulsory, ubiquitous scare quotes (I just found it impossible to summarize victimary discourse without a whole series of them.).  Almost as common, and for my purposes here more interesting, is what we might call the obligatory negation familiar to any reader of either “high” academic theory or cultural and postcolonial studies:  locutions like “of course, I don’t mean to suggest…”; “this shouldn’t be taken to support…”; “for readers who wish to implicate my discourse in the common sense, this would be misread as…”, etc.  These obligatory negations go well beyond the normal anticipation of misunderstandings and questions and exhibit markedly pathological features:  if the declarative makes an absent object present as a sign, the obligatory negation, itself, of course, a declarative of an especially strident type, makes absent an object which one fears is present–the sign itself, which would absorb one, overwhelming all resistance, into the dreaded center.

In that case, it is worth considering whether we can distinguish between more or less healthy declarative forms, between victimary ones and those of the center.  Would more directly political and substantive declaratives like, say, “Capitalism is exploitation” and “America is racist” share an identifiable structure with the obligatory negation, that of a kind of self-cancelling declarative?  Could we, in contrast, identify a structure common to “conservative” (or, really, classically liberal or conventionally patriotic) declaratives, like “the free market is the best means for producing wealth” and “America is a good society”? A declarative of the center would include in its formulation a common and ever receding horizon, while the victimary declarative would fix our attention on a rapidly approaching, even if never quite arriving, catastrophic object.

I do think it is possible, and would propose as a kind of proof text a famous declarative of Churchill’s (the brilliance of which I have heard Eric Gans remark upon):  “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”  This statement might serve us as a kind of template:  any statement that can be translated into this form passes muster as a declarative of the center, and those which can’t are deemed victimary.  Churchill’s declarative is genuinely originary because it stands in the midst of while simultaneously transcending competing and potentially deadly terms.  You can only attack it by proposing another, better, form of government, which the statement implicitly invites you to attempt, but in so doing have you not demanded a place to speak within the existing democratic order?  So:  “the free market is the worst way of producing wealth except for all the others that have been tried.”  That works perfectly well:  one need not idealize the market, and this formulation openly invites us to focus on its flaws, inequities, occasional destructiveness and corrosive effects on benign traditions.  In the end, none of these claims detracts from the market’s superiority; in fact, any other form of wealth production or distribution you can try will be drawn back into the market, and we can wait patiently for that confirmation.  And:  “America is an awful society, except when compared to most of the others, real or possible, one could imagine.”  That seems to me to hold up pretty well, and Chruchill himself even had a version:  “Americans will always do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”

I don’t think it works at all, though, for our prototypical victimary statements.  The singling out of a uniquely virulent perpetrator doesn’t allow for it:  “capitalism is an excellent mode of distribution, until you have seen all the others”: “America is a land of racial equality, until you have seen the others”–the statements lose all of their sense in the translation.  (A more decent, big government liberalism fares better, I think:  “a vigorous public sphere and expansive government intervention in the economy is the worst way of remedying the excesses of the market, except for all the others that have been tried.”  This lacks the near-axiomatic status of our pro-market statement, but it at least invites a civil and reasonable attempt at falsification, an attempt which is by no means assured of success.) 

This pathological form, then, could be further defined by the lack of almost any boundary between declarative, imperative and ostensive in victimary discourse:  to say, “America is racist,” is to command speaker and listener alike to demolish American racism by “any means necessary” and, further, to find and point out ostentatiously all instances (especially the most hidden and therefore insidious instances) of racism wherever one turns.  “Capitalism is exploitation” likewise compels one to devote oneself to denouncing all apparently non-exploitative aspects of capitalism as “ideological” mechanisms, concealing the true nature of the mode of production.  If metaphysics hopes, by asserting the primacy of the declarative, to maintain some semblance of stability in the wild worlds of ostensives and imperatives by situating them within legitimately procedural and deliberative forms, victimary discourse is a veritable control freak–the declarative must include all possible imperatives and ostensives that might flow from it.  The declarative of the center, meanwhile, is content to let us view and consider all other alternatives, secure in the knowledge that the inexhaustibility of the sign in its latest incarnation, and the irreducible event-fulness and freedom constitutive of human existence, will ultimately provide us with the slack and guidance we need to find our way back to the “least worst.”  The only imperative inherently attached to declaratives of the center is the one commanding us to be ready to see and hear, in the middle of our most tempting resentments, signs that what seems to us the worst might really be least worse, which would simultanously be signs pointing us toward the way in which we might make it lesser still.

Adam Katz

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