Monthly Archives: February 2014

Originary Memory

In my latest essay for Anthropoetics, I argued for a language or semiotic based notion of ethics, piecing together the concepts of joint attention, language learning, disciplinarity, and what I called “upclining,” or the retrieval of the signs of more originary events through the signs of the present. All of that is fine, but it now strikes me that an even simpler, more fundamental way of grounding all those concepts, and of proposing an originary ethics, is right at hand. What is ethical, and all that really matters, is remembering the originary scene. This may seem hard to understand, and even impossible: the originary scene is a theoretical construct, derived from a synthesis and transformation of recent thinkers (Girard and Derrida in particular), and while we GA-niks take it to be true, we do so because we believe it provides the most compelling theoretical and analytical account of culture, religion, society and anthropological phenomena more generally, and not because we experience any bond to an actual originary scene (the way in which Christians may experience a identification with Jesus, or Jews with the revelation on Mt Sinai). The originary scene is not peopled for us in that way.

But how could we understand a sign without remembering other scenes upon which we understood signs, or use a sign without commemorating all those other scenes. And any sign bears with it the traces of the scenes upon which it was performed before it found its way to us—a proper care for the sign is a tribute to those earlier scenes, and through them the scenes before those. A sign well used is a sign that defers violence, even violence several or many degrees removed from the scene upon which the sign is used—using a sign to defer the first stirrings of resentment so as to potentially marginally replenish the social store of civility is iterating the sign’s use on the originary scene. But what kind of sign use will do that? We’re not talking about being nicer to people. Sometimes the proper care of the sign involves confrontation, sometime bluntness, sometimes subtlety, sometimes a strong line of BS—the only way we can know is by drawing upon our intuitions as sign users, and since our intuitions as sign users ultimately derive from the originary scene, sharpening, honing and sensitizing those intuitions take us back through the past, following the trail of auto-probatory signs to the first one.

It follows that any future-oriented ethics will be shallow, self-serving, and even fraudulent—none of us knows the slightest thing about the future, or of the way any of our actions will play out in the vast networks of activity comprising our world so doing something “to make things better” requires an unethical degree of arrogance. Similarly, acting according to some “principle” (even “freedom”) is an attempt to evade attunement with originary intuitions, to stop listening to the imperatives that would have us turn our head back to the ostensive from whence they originate. In both cases, we are dealing with escapism and fantasy. Originary memory is taking care of language—by which I don’t mean trying to maintain it as a transparent vehicle of communication, or ensuring that words be used in their proper meaning; what I mean is that everything anyone says makes it possible to say something else that couldn’t have been said otherwise, and that in articulating one of those things that couldn’t have been said otherwise one remembers by carrying forward the very first utterance that made everything said since then possible. It is by thus heading back into the past, enriching the originary scene with everything that has happened since and therefore, in a sense, happened there, is still happening there, that we open up possible futures.

The Victimary Bambina

I don’t have many good things to say about Woody Allen. For about 35 years now (starting with “Manhattan”) he has, with very few exceptions, in what seems to me the most embarrassingly self-occluded manner, exposed to the world in his films his creepy fantasies of beautiful young women falling in love with him. And there is far more, including his apologias for evil, which Eric Gans has dissected in a couple of Chronicles.

But what is far more disturbing even than Woody Allen is the victimary theology that insists on faith that we must believe unreservedly in whosoever presents him or (especially) herself as a victim of sexual violence. You would think that after the Tawana Brawley, McMartin preschool and Duke Lacrosse team hoaxes the hold of this pillar of victimary theology would be somewhat weakened; but you would be wrong, as any glance at discussions online of Dylan Farrow’s accusations of Allen demonstrate.

Everyone knows that accusations are only accusations, that they need to be vetted according to specified procedures, that even if in public judgments a strict presumption of innocence is not necessary, at least some skepticism and modesty regarding what can be known is called for. Everyone, in short, knows that people can lie, forget and misremember. But at the same time they don’t know it, because knowing it would “reinforce conditions under which victims fear to come forward with their stories,” “protect the perpetrator,” or something along those lines.

I wonder how many people have thought through this logic to its totalitarian conclusions. Should Brawley’s story have been questioned? Or the accuser of the Duke lacrosse players? If so, when would it have been acceptable to start doing so? If at some point—say, in conducting an investigation regarding the possibility of a criminal prosecution—it does become acceptable to point to non-corroborating evidence, why? Why not at an earlier point, then? What does it mean to conduct an investigation in which a questioning of the complainant’s story is prohibited? Is the point, perhaps, that mere criminal prosecutions are too this-worldly to address the transcendent horror of the victimary condition? The logic of faith in the self-proclaimed victim is that nothing but a perpetual, unremitting hounding of the presumed perpetrator, his expulsion from public life and the ruination of his private life, will suffice. Let’s call it “unctuous totalitarianism.”

Furthermore, the theology of the victim further compels us to accept the victim’s definition of her victimization; even more, to identify this victimization in the very asymmetry “positioning” her in relation to a world of victimizers. Sexual abuse of children is a criminal offense that must defined in specific ways, but faith in the victim can hardly rest content with such a narrow, juridical frame. The law itself, in demanding that the victim recount her victimization, that she be “credible,” that she endure cross-examination and perhaps hostile media representations, just means that she is victimized again, and her deepest injury left unacknowledged.

This passion yet relies upon the juridical frame—we are not yet at the point where random women are accusing random men of being the Gestapo of the patriarchy (largely, perhaps, because hard-core members of the victimary cult are still a small minority, however far its penumbras reach). But the juridical frame, with an ever expanding body of ever more amorphous sexual harassment law, is stretching prodigiously, and even that may not contain the craving for unqualified recognition of absolute harm inherent in the theology of the victim.

Of course, the victim, in accepting saint-like status, turns herself over to the same victimary church, implicitly agreeing to undergo a perpetual process of “healing” and exemplifying the universal condition of trauma. Just as it is now dogma in the addiction industry that once an addict, always an addict, and that a single beer will send the addict back into the death spiral of self-abandon, the dogma of sexual abuse is that the trauma last forever and that trauma and one’s struggle to transcend it forever defines the core of one’s being. (Another, not obviously related dogma, that homosexuals are born homosexuals and remain so through out their lives, with all attempts to change that transparent, and vicious, frauds, serves a related purpose: as the Eagle’s song, “Hotel California” has it, you can check out of the victimary condition, but you can never leave.) I suppose if there is a victimary end game, it would have to be the world as universal sanatorium in which we are all each other’s infection and each other’s nurse. The oppressors are welcome if they acknowledge that they, to, are victims of the racist patriarchy, and stand unqualifiedly with the victims—in reading over quite a few comment threads on stories dealing with the Farrow letter, I have seen many men cleansing and redeeming themselves in this manner. They must also take the lead in purging the irredeemable—the stream of abuse directed toward non-believers (those who don’t think that, with all his flaws, this sounds like something Allen would do; or those who balance Farrow’s claims with evidence of Mia Farrow’s introduction of various dysfunctions into her children’s lives; or those insisting on a proper juridical framing of the claims; or simply those who say we can’t know for sure) is unrestrained.

I’ll make a final, perhaps predictable observation. The political equivalent of the church of our child of sexual abuse is the international cult of Palestine, for whom the most horrific actions are merely proof of how all-encompassingly horrific Israeli oppression must be—who would strap a bomb to a teenager and send him or her into a crowd of civilians to self-detonate except for those who have be traumatized beyond all reason themselves? But if all they can do is act out their trauma in escalatory ways, how can they then be considered negotiating partners capable of concessions and respect for agreements they have reached?

There is no way to stand outside of these discourses without sounding callous, as I’m sure I do here. I think it’s important to resist the usual qualifications people making arguments similar to mine usually feel compelled to introduce—that, yes, sexual abuse of children is horrible, that it takes place far too often, that we must oppose it wherever we see it, that in this case Dylan Farrow may indeed be telling the truth, etc. To run through these qualifications (even though I suppose I just did it) is to concede the point that rejecting victimary arguments unconditionally renders one suspect. I would like to argue that victimary arguments are terrible for actual victims because they encourage people to define themselves in terms of insults and injuries received, which is to say in terms of resentments. But, like the argument some conservatives will always try to make that leftist policies are worse for blacks than for anyone else, trapping them in dependency and dysfunction, I don’t believe these arguments can stick now. The victimary has to run its course, and there’s no way of knowing when, if, or how it will exhaust itself. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address seems to me more prescient than ever:

“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Victimary thinking is based on the conviction that if there were a God He would will it that all the wealth produced through any asymmetrical relation whatsoever be sunk, and that whatever looks to us like a humiliating experience in the past must be repaid by equivalent humiliation in contemporary coin.