GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 24, 2008

Victimary Modernity and Covenantal Modernity

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:19 pm

We could see modernity as a kind of swerve (a “clinamen,” in Harold Bloom’s taxonomy of influence, for all you former English grad students) away from Christianity:  the model of Jesus on the Cross, who has willingly taken upon himself the hatreds directed toward the scapegoat and thereby exposed the fundamental fraudulence of scapegoating, making its rejection the signal imperative of universal humanity–this model is made transferable to all individuals singled out by persecutory powers, first of all and most scandalously, those freethinkers scapegoated by the Church.  This victimary model precedes all the other attributes taken to be definitive of modernity, whether they be the marketplace, science and/or technology, mass or democratic politics, and so one.  All of these attributes presuppose the resentment directed toward any attempt to single out for persecution any individual for their speech and thought, that is, for the very things that make them exemplarily human.  This victimary modernity is caught up in a never-ending double bind of both denouncing the Church for its “hypocrisy” while borrowing, for the purposes of the denunciation, the basic anthropological model preserved by Christianity.

There is another modernity, though, and it emerged in response to the question, what kind of social interaction is possible once the hierarchical “big man” model of social relations is discredited by the holiness of the individual?  The answer to this question is the freely entered into agreement, which goes by the name of “contract” when applied to relations between individuals and “covenant” when, strictly speaking, applied to relations between people and God but more prosaically, agreements between people that place some sustainable and self-generated mode of community, some permanent “public thing,” in between them.  Victimary and covenantal modernity are warring twins, even though I fear that the Esau of the two was the first to be born, and even though we can hope that Jacob can utimately appease Esau wiithout compromising his gift to the world. 

The victimary has certain permanent advantages over the covenantal:  for one thing, the victimary can stage events almost at will, as any equality can, upon close examination, be seen to conceal some unbearable inequality (as in the rage of gay activists in being relegated to the second class citizenship of “civil unions” as opposed to marriage), and no satisfactory answer can ever be given to such complaints.  For another thing, the victimary can always tap into immediate resentments and desires–it always tells us that we deserve what we want.  The covenantal has only one, big advantage:  it is the only alternative, once the victimary has painted all of us into a corner, held all of us hostage without any determinate ransom. 

The war between victimary and covenantal modernities is wage mostly in the margins, in the skirmishes over everyday norms and habits–it enters into  the broader, public arena after the groundwork has been laid in less visible scenes.  Here, again, the victimary has significant advantages:  the covenantal requires near unanimity on all kinds of issues, often without any proof (or, if there is proof, it comes too late) that a little transgression or variation here not only won’t lead to devastation, but will even liven things up a bit–why does everyone in the neighborhood have to maintain decent appearances, why do we always have to be minimally polite, why does private desire always have to be cognizant of social consequences?  The truth is that a couple of houses in disrepair in a good neighborhood does ruin it for everyone, a couple of heedlessly rude or inconsiderate people does make a place of work a site of extreme discomfort, even a kind of terror, and even minimal increases in out of wedlock births do undermine social morality and morale.  But the victimary romantic, who sees the “hypocrisy” and “uptightness” behind these demands on the part of all those very flawed people shuttered behind their pleasant facades engaging in who knows what kinds of unseemly behavior themselves, will never be convinced.

Even more, contracts and covenants don’t happen through simultaneous agreement–someone proposes, and the other accepts, someone produces and waits for another to consume.  This basic, risky gesture, predicated upon hope and trust, depending upon creativity and initiative, is perhaps most hated by the victimary–quite a bit of the victimary regime currently insurgent aims at little less than demonizing such gestures as either naive or some kind of insidious power play that somehow places us all at risk and upsets the latest arrived at delicate balance of resentments.  But even more than that is the arena of imperatives, all around us, the hierarchies and mini-states of emergency, where someone has to take command and others have to obey if things are to come together as needed.  Even contractualists and covenantors don’t like to look too carefully at all that, and tend to be more concerned that the claims of the imperative will spread than that imperatives might lose their credibility when they are most needed.  Even in America the military, the model for imperative orders, exists as a kind of isolated sub-culture, honored and despised in equal measure, but most of all alien–I am not the only observer to suggest that John McCain’s appeal to the honor and sacrifice rooted in that culture did him more harm than good.  Restoring or perhaps creating friendships between imperative orders and civil orders grounded in contractual and convenantal relationships may be second in importance today only to recovering the Jewish and Christian roots of republican covenanting.

So, these days, the victimary is ascendant, the winner in its latest asymmetrical battle with the covenantal.  We might not get another chance; history provides no guarantees.  The only answer is freedom–to act as free men and women, enaging in free speech, free inquiry, free creation, free association, because covenants can only be generated amongst the free.  Maybe the most basic thing to do now is distinguish these modes of freedom from their victimary doppelgangers:  speech, inquiry, creation and association mired in “resistance” to the “hypocrisy” of “domination.”  I won’t surprise any reader of this post by concluding that the unsurpassable instrument at our disposal for pointing out this distinction is the originary hypothesis of Eric Gans.

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