Anti-semitism and the Victimary Era

Here is my proposal for that International Conference on Anti-semitism I mentioned on the GAlist a while back. We’ll see what they make of it.

This paper will offer an account of contemporary anti-semitism in terms of Eric Gans’s “originary hypothesis” regarding the origin of language and culture. The originary hypothesis extends and revises Rene Girard’s analysis of mimetic and rivalry: according to the originary hypothesis, the first sign emerged in a single event, a mimetic crisis in which the (proto) human group arrested their common and self-destructive convergence upon a common object by putting forward what Gans calls a “gesture of aborted appropriation.” Representation, then, is the deferral of violence, as is, therefore, all of culture. History is the ongoing process of preserving and, where necessary and possible, replacing such means of deferral (languages, rituals, beliefs, moralities, art, and so on) which are intrinsically fragile and under constant threat from mimetic desire, rivalry and violence.

“Generative Anthropology” (the mode of thought based upon the originary hypothesis) provides us with two ways of thinking about anti-semitism. First, the kind of anti-semitism which ultimately led to the Holocaust is predicated upon the paradox of the Jewish discovery of monotheism: the Judaic revelation presented knowledge of a single God beyond the means of control of totemic religions and a single humanity whose knowledge of God is most profoundly revealed in the reciprocal relations between humans; at the same time, this very revelation is granted to a single people, “chosen” to work out before the world the implications of this understanding of the divine. The spread of monotheism, already inscribed in its universalistic origin, could hardly take place other than through resentment towards those who both gave this God to humanity and “selfishly” claimed an exclusive relation to Him. This resentment, evident in both Christianity and Islam, is modified in modernity, which completely separates the divinized individual from his/her bond with God: the Jewish “principle,” in this case, is what binds humans to tradition and their narrow ethnicities and outmoded loyalties. Finally, the reaction against modernity (and especially those radical reactions that reject Christianity as well) removes the exemption for individuals enacted by the modern contempt for the Jewish people: it is the Jewish principle of universal morality and individual freedom that has corrupted and dissolved all legitimate forms of community and authority, while Jewish “exclusiveness” turns this process into a deliberate conspiracy against the “nations.”

The ultimately omnicidal potential for human violence revealed by the Holocaust introduces something new into this equation. The Holocaust marks the beginning of the victimary era, in which we are now living. The virulent hatred of the Nazis towards the Jews drew the world into a cataclysmic struggle, the like of which we will not survive again in the nuclear age. The eschewing of such hatred must be the center of the new system of deferral constructed after the war: whatever “looks like” the Nazi-Jew relation must be uncompromisingly proscribed. This, of course, creates an incentive to make one’s own grievance fit that model: post-colonial, anti-racist, feminist, environmentalist and so on struggles are all cast in terms of the perpetrator/victim/bystander configuration extracted from the Holocaust. The Jews are once again placed in a paradoxical position. First of all, the response on the part of the Jews to the consequences of their utter defenselessness in the Holocaust is to create and, with growing unanimity, support a Jewish nation-state. But the nation-state, with its ethnic exclusivity and narrow self-interest, is one of those things that “looks” very much “like” Nazism. Second, the victimary principle can only be universalized if the Jewish monopoly on Holocaust guilt is broken—the best way to do so is to present the Jews as oppressors, at least just like the rest of us, at worst uniquely so, insofar they have exploited the world’s guilt so as to perpetuate the very conditions enabling their own victimization. Finally, then, the emergence of a new victim, the Palestinians, the victim of the Jews, completes the victimary metaphysics first set in motion by the response to the Holocaust. The victimary system, then, depends upon this new, expanded anti-semitism, in which the Jews are scapegoated for the crimes of the West as well as for the intensifying resentments toward the West, coming now, in particular, from the most bitter if not the oldest of those resentments: that of Islam.

The originary hypothesis suggests that, on the originary scene of language creation, someone had to have gone first, that is, renounced, and have been seen to renounce, his appropriative relation to the object. This position, the position of “the Jew” (we are not speaking about actual Jews here, even if arguably this configuration enters into Jewish self-representations as well), is intermittently admired and imitated—but more often hated. Only a renewed, and now global, acceptance of “firstness” could enable us to transcend the increasingly irrational anti-semitism that now plagues even a country as traditionally reasonable and liberal as the UK.

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