GABlog

October 29, 2007

Witness Protection, or the Post Romantic Individual

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:04 pm

To be a modern individual is to court, if only in the most distant, mild, or simulated way, the risk of being scapegoated.  This is the legacy of the Romantic stance invented by Rousseau, where, in a revision of the event of the crucifixion, the individual creates himself as a center of attention by claiming to be the victim of universal persecution; and successfully exploits both “defensive” and “offensive” responses to that claim as its confirmation.  However necessary and productive this stance may have been in the emergence of the individual on the modern market, it has clearly long since become pathological, starting with its appropriation by collective movements predicated upon their exclusion from the marketplace. 

If modernity is the expansion beyond the strictly liturgical realm of the Christian practice of imitating and witnessing for Jesus, the problem posed by the practice of drawing upon oneself that persecution lies in the formalization of that stance–the abstraction of the scapegoater/scapegoated relationship from any objective markers that the the scapegoat genuinely disseminates differences throughout society beyond the present capacity of the system of deferral to bear.  After all, once Jesus has exposed the arbitrariness of the scapegoat function, that function can no longer be arbitrary:  it is now he or she who confronts whosoever claims to be today’s “big man” with a broader mode of reciprocity and demands that society, and each individual, choose sides one way or the other.  The Rousseauian stance, then, would be less authentic–indeed, it would be a throwback to pre-Christian forms of scapegoating, with “markers” of the scapegoat disconnected from moral problematics–than that of he or she who risks scapegoating by speaking and acting openly in defense of others in danger of being scapegoated.

Since acting pre-emptively in defense of possible scapegoats leads to the construction of norms and institutions which would detect and defer such possibilities, the modern individual’s willingness to risk scapegoating would become increasingly mediated and the risk more widely distributed.  This might serve fairly well as a definition of “modern civilization.”  At the same time, this widened distribution increases the probability that the risks will never be serious; which is to say, it becomes increasingly difficult to describe them as “risks” at all:  the decent employee, law abiding citizen, good parent, etc., is, indeed, a product of a series of decisions, however buffered or unconsciously taken, to risk being the scapegoat, but the distance between our analytical appreciation of this fact and the actual experience of it is vast.  Hence not only the ever fresh temptation to take the Rousseauian shortcut to genuine individuality, but the ease with which that normal citizen can be scapegoated by the victimary claim that the normal is no more than a conspiracy to exclude. 

In that case, though, might not the victimary scapegoating return the normal citizen to his or her originary (modern) vocation as witness to the modern as the “secularization” of the Christian event?  The only problem with this formulation is that the victimary protest is a shell game insofar as those it scapegoats end up testifying, in their victimization, to the truth of the victimary.  The reason for this is Auschwitz theology, which has powerfully imprinted upon all contemporary events the inability of all the normal institutions to register the event of Auschwitz–not only did doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, bourgeois citizens, etc., not resist, but they actively lent their skills, unthinkingly and in a sense, then, even more complicitly, to the industrialized slaughter.  There is enough truth to this intepretation of Auschwitz that the ranks of the bourgeoisie will produce no new universally accepted (or, we might say, non-ironic) martyrs until another event comes to supplant the Holocaust as the horizon of a new era.

There is nevertheless a central role for those of us who are more or less comfortably middle class and “protected” in the rejuvenation of modern individuality, and that role lies in the embrace, protection, and “privileging” of the genuinely new form of individuality emerging in our time:  that form represented by witnesses to non-modern cultures–whether those cultures be pre-modern, as much of the Islamic world, or (to awkwardly coin a phrase), “de-modernized,” as many impoverished, crime-ridden institution-poor communities, mostly populated by racial and ethnic minorities, in our inner cities.  Such witnesses, often scapegoated within their own communities as traitors and “Uncle Toms,” testify, as victims or at least targets of “our” victims, to the truth of modernity and, more specifically, to the devastation wrought by the White Guilt that encourages the substitution of limitless resentment for dialgoue and introspection.  Defending such “informants,” whether they be “dissident” African Americans like Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly or ex-Muslim “infidels” like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, demands about as much courage as one is likely to be expected to demonstrate in the elite institutions of the academy and media.  And it also requires the challenging work of repairing the damage done by resentment to the always fragile institutions and norms of modernity–looking at the “Global Intifada” that wages war on the intersection of the free market and the nation-state that sustains modernity from the Islamic world (increasingly in alliance with the resentment of the Left) on one side and the transnational progressives (who hope to subordinate nations to an international law circularly defined as whatever the international lawyers and bureaucrats say it is) we can see how fragile and even improbable modernity remains.

This alliance, or covenant, between the middle and the informant, would allow us to propose the “marginal individual” as the unit of measurement for social and political thought.  I don’t mean “marginalized,” but, in a loose borrowing from marginal utility economic theory, that hypothetical individual whose consent will make or break any regime or policy.  The strength of Leftist social and political arguments lie solely in their ability to present typical victims of their opponents’ policies and preferred institutional forms as comprising the majority and hence above the necessary threshold; even an injured child whose parents own several cars and a 300,000$ home can be presented as a victim of the “failure” to adequately insure all citizens.  The marginal individual would be one who is representable simultaneously as a victim of and as newly liberated and responsible under a given policy–conservatives at their best have sought to define such a marginal individual in their arguments for, e.g., welfare reform and school vouchers–the victim cut off from government largess is empowered to join genuine associational forms which enable her to determine her own fate.  This marginal individual will always be the one who must break from the victimary cocoon/prison in which she is enclosed; and those of us defending her must be prepared to face opprobrium and ridicule with equanimity, knowing that the individuals we “promote” might always fall back into “non-modern” conditions or the victimary bubble.  Moral, political and civilizational progress could then be measured in terms of the lowering of the threshold at which the new mode of individuality can be “detected”; that is, the extent to which each successful substitution of “guarantor” for “victim” further increases the difficulty of victimary representations.

Adam Katz

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