Originary Mistakenness

The progression from defilement, to sin, to guilt serves an index of the progression from the ethical to the moral—that is, from imperatives issued by the center (and materialized in ritual forms) to imperatives issued to oneself, demanding reciprocity with one’s fellows. The defilement of the communal space occurs when some prohibition has been violated—the intention behind the violation is irrelevant (it could have been an accident, say spilling some liquid used in the ritual); the contamination or pollution must be cleansed, and this can also only be done through strictly prescribed ritual means. Meanwhile, one only sins when one deliberately violates some divine command, and one is only guilty when one can be judged (and judge oneself) according standards of probity that are shared but also internalized within each individual.

If everything human can be found, albeit implicitly or potentially, on the originary scene, it follows that nothing found on the originary scene is ever lost. Defilement, or its possibility, is undoubtedly present on the originary scene: the sign has to be emitted “properly,” or recognizably, by all participants, and the failure to do so, even due to slowness or inadequate mimetic capacities, would pollute the scene, i.e., leave lurking unacceptable levels of menacing violence. It is easy to understand why Judaism, Christianity, and then modernity would want to eliminate all trace of the “irrationality” of defilement; but it should also be possible to understand that this approach hasn’t worked, and can be implicated in the worst violence of 20th century’s crisis of modernity.

Indeed, the investment by both Nazism and Communism in discourses of defilement might lead us to redouble our efforts to expunge its apparently indelible traces. We can recognize these traces in the tropes of “infection,” “pollution,” “contamination” and so on applied to both the race and class enemies of these regimes; and it would therefore be possible to reduce these regimes to a recrudescence of primitive, “compact” societies in revolt against the market order. But the power of White Guilt is also the power of defilement—otherwise, it would not have proven so “contagious” so as to “contaminate” even those (Western) countries at war with Nazism; nor would it continue to prove itself so impervious to attempts to direct attention back to more “rational” articulations of individual act, intent, and acknowledged social norms. I wouldn’t propose changing the name to “White Defilement,” but we could take the mysterious power of White Guilt to indicate that sinfulness and guilt are constructed with the materials of defilement, rather than replacing them.

A sense of defilement, of some derangement of the communal and even world order that implicates one even if you not only didn’t commit but resisted with all your might, is a perfectly proper response to the crime of genocide—it is denying that sense, then, that is “irrational.” The perceived irrationality of that sense of defilement lies in the practices through which we seek to ward off the dreaded derangement of being, what we have come to call the “slippery slope,” and which lead us to invest more and more in deferring ever more vague threats. But accusations of irrationality here presuppose the possibility of setting proper limits and guardrails, which can only be done through shared intuitions and in the course of events. The problem, then, lies in giving public expression to this defilement, which is only partially amenable to dialogue or negotiation.

I would suggest addressing this problem through another issue that I have written a lot about lately—error, in its simultaneous emergence with norm on the originary scene. The one who makes a spelling or grammatical mistake, or commits some solecism (or, for that matter, “misreads” a situation, “misunderstands” a text, “misses” a “hint,” and so on), is as “blameless” as the one who accidentally disrupts some ritual space; and the mistake evokes a very similar sense of unease and fragility—everyone around feels compelled to show that they would never make such a mistake, first of all by demonstrating some recognition of its mistakenness. I hypothesized in an earlier post that this is because the linguistic error is a sign of infinite desire: making a mistake exposes one as imitating what one doesn’t know how to imitate, and therefore what one doesn’t understand, and the only reason for doing so is an “empty” and insatiable desire to be included in the community. The possibility of granting entrance to one capable of merely adopting the required forms as means turns the norms of the community themselves into an object of desire, and possible possession, and they can therefore no longer serve as reliable means of mediation. In that case, defilement can be seen as originary mistakenness. (There is not an analogous noun for being in error; and the double meaning of “mistaken” also accords well with the incontinence of defilement.)

We can see the entire development of speech forms as a series of mistakes. The originary sign itself was a mistake, a gesture that abandoned its object part way, and was then accentuated, equally mistakenly, in response to the attention paid its anomalous abortion. The first imperative was an inappropriate ostensive; the first interrogative a prolonged, which is to say, botched imperative, diverted part way through by the uncertainty of its fulfillment; the first declarative, the negative ostensive, is, at the very least reactive, and could not have been based on any “rational” assumption of its success; the first articulation of two parts of speech (in my hypothesis) the mistaken application of an imperative (verb) to an object (name) under contention; finally, once those two “slots” are available and modify each other in some way, words and phrases can be converted by being mistakenly entered into them.

All idioms are built upon the cornerstone of some mistake. If the mistaken is marked, then, and we unmark ourselves by enforcing the norm against the polluting mistake, then we mark ourselves by forced innovations that risk being mistaken and unmark others by constructing idioms around their mistakes. Originary mistakenness does not abolish the categories of sin, guilt and crime; rather, it undergirds those categories: we can abhore, fight against, and punish evil while acknowledging that at its source is a category mistake: somewhere along the line the sign was taken for reality in the fullness of desire, and the subsequent evil results from the demand that that illusory identity of sign and reality be restored. And we can return to that category error and make it the starting point of a new idiom.

Modernity is such a mistake: the founding of modernity was the application of the transcendence of scapegoating through Jesus to the elimination of oppression through the progress of humanity. This mistake requires not only inveterate hostility to Christianity but the unending search for historically relevant scapegoats to elevate as denunciations of everything sacrificial in humanity—in other words, for new sacrifices to cancel out the old. If there is a distinctive unease or defilement one feels as a modern, it is in not being an adequate potential sacrifice—which is to say, being unable to imagine a scene in which one’s death would have “meaning.” Victimary thinking in turn mistakes modernity as an extension and intensification of the Christian event, and a means for the uneven production of victims.

We can never be certain of understanding each other but we can be certain of misunderstanding each other—there will be mistakes in every exchange of signs. We can try and reduce the misunderstandings or we can make them productive—the problem with seeking to reduce them past a certain point is that the exchange of signs is hardly worth it because nothing new is being conveyed, so at that point, at the very least, it is better to make the misunderstandings more productive. We can do so by rejecting the dialogic model of discourse, with its concern for transparency and replacing it with a “regulatory” model of discourse in which I try to follow, refine and enhance the rules I take the other to be following. In this latter case transparency is supported by an irreducible opacity—the tacit rules and habits which are always embedded in discourses but can never be made explicit (except by following some other, largely tacit, rule for making rules and habit explicit). Mistakes, in this case, can be revelatory, as they put forward other rules, which can always be articulated in some way.

Dialogue and conversation—alternations of interrogatives and declaratives—are important and within their own sphere transformative; but they presume that we are free of defilement, that the contamination has been contained. The islands upon which that assumption could be safely made are rapidly shrinking. Regulatory or disciplinary discourse draws upon the more fundamental imperative-ostensive articulations. We make demands of our models and of our objects of desire: we demand that they instruct us in how to emulate and possess them. Such demands become prayers that are answered as we strive to become worthy of our models and objects of desire. Rules emerge in the ostensive disclosure of those signs of worthiness. These signs of worthiness (or worthlessness) appear in our own gestures and habits, to others, who see them against the background of abjection (our originary mistakenness) and adopt their own attitudes towards our models and objects. What anyone can do differently is minimalize and publicize the rules they follow, so as to increase generativity and make visible the consequences of any particular mistake.

An acknowledgement of our originary mistakenness would radically transform our attitude toward risk, and there is little today that is in more desperate need of transformation. It would be very easy to see White Guilt as an indemnification policy against the risks involved in resentments held by anyone not firmly invested in the existing system, and the increasing terror of risk of any kind can be seen across all our institutions to the point where it is nearly paralyzing us. The realization that everything is interconnected intensifies the fear that any mistake can bring everything down, but it could just as easily lead us to notice all kinds of redundancies and back-ups that are also part of our interconnectedness. The real threat to the market system is the desperate attempts to avoid its breakdown—I would go so far as to assert that no such thing would have happened if the government just stayed out of the financial meltdown in September 2008. Enormous amounts of wealth would have been lost, but before too long people would have been buying and selling, lending and borrowing, saving and investing again, perhaps first of all on the margins of the current system dominated by the alliances between the government regulators and the huge financial institutions. Accepting our originary mistakenness will eliminate the terror of contagion, contamination and defilement, in its contemporary form of various “domino theories,” which tell us if one crucial piece goes down it will bring everything else down with it. Even if it does, something will get up again, and we can put our energies into that inevitably risky something.

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