The Origins and Generative Presence of the Sacred and the Rise of White Guilt

by Adam Katz (Sept. 2006)


   Origins are always sacred and those who wish to keep origins at bay are afraid precisely of that sacred force—those whose job it is to keep or establish the peace instinctively veer away from questions like “who came first?” to ones like “how might the object under contention be divided in such way that the none of the parties involved will find sufficient cause to continue to fight?” There are two objections to this reasonable approach, though:  one is that those who care solely about origins are thereby given a perhaps insurmountable advantage and, less obviously, the possibility that if we experienced and created origins once we might be able to do so again is now excluded.    That we might be as “originary” today as our more explicitly pious ancestors is the hypothesis I will present here as a way of introducing “Generative Anthropology,” a mode of thinking about the human invented by Eric Gans.  Gans’ Generative Anthropology (from now on “GA”) is predicated upon his “originary hypothesis” regarding the origins of language and the human.  Gans first formulated his hypothesis in his 1980 book, The Origin of Language and has refined it in four succeeding books (The End of Culture [1985]; Science and Faith [1990]; Originary Thinking [1993]; and Signs of Paradox [1997]), as well as on his Anthropoetics website.


Gans’ hypothesis starts as a development of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory.  Girard argued (first of all through his literary studies) that human desire is necessarily mimetic:  we desire, that is, what others whom we take as our model’s desire.  It follows that desire is always conflictual:  ultimately, I will not settle for something similar to what you have, I will want the very thing you possess.  If we present this in broader anthropological terms, the implication is that the more advanced mimetic capacities that must have distinguished those advanced primates who were our immediate predecessors upon this earth at some point became a threat to the species itself (or, more precisely, the groups of which the species was composed).  To anticipate, humankind is the species that poses the greatest threat to its own survival.


It is at this point that Girard and Gans part company.  For Girard, it is the discovery of the “scapegoat mechanism” that resolved the “mimetic crisis” that stands at the origin of the human species:  in the midst of a crisis created by the members of the group’s convergence upon some central object, the group arbitrarily selects a single member whom it treats as the “cause” of the crisis—at the origin of humanity, in other words, is the first lynching.  For Girard, this analysis leads to an acceptance of, at least, the basic anthropological truth of Christianity, which exposed the scapegoat mechanism once and for all, and makes it impossible for us to continue to employ it in good faith.


For Gans, this crisis is resolved otherwise, through what he calls the “gesture of aborted appropriation,” the first sign.  Gans deliberately leaves the details of the scene vague or, as he would insist, minimal:  following the principle of Occam’s razor, we should assume no more than is necessary.  In some manner, the common movement toward the object is transformed into a movement renouncing the object.  We might, for example, think of it as one member of the group seeing the others’ grasping and slowing down as part of this seeing; this slowing down is then “interpreted” as a reversal of the common movement by another member, who is in turn imitated by a third member…  The slowing down is experienced as a reversal of the attractive force of the object into a repulsive force, a repulsive force which is now being imitated by each member of the group in turn.  This must be understood as a conscious act, but, again, minimally so:  the difference between utter destruction and the salvation offered through the sign is the total content of this initial form of consciousness; and, for GA, it remains the basic content of our consciousness as long as we remain human.  Representation is the deferral of violence.


This originary scene or event is also the origin of the sacred:  the object at the center is, necessarily “God,” insofar as it is to its attractive/repellant nature that the group attributes its salvation.  The originary sign is an ostensive (like “look out!”), which does nothing more than draw our attention to something of extreme urgency, and for GA this remains the ultimate source and accounts for the ineradicability of our sense of the sacred.  In times of crisis—which, ultimately, are generated by the potential for intra-species violence—we “emit,” even if just to ourselves, the ostensive sign.  Rather than the source of violence, then, GA sees the sacred as the transcendence of violence, the generation of the “vertical” relation to the divine out of the “horizontal” relations among humans.  Religion, as Gans likes to say, is bad cosmology but good anthropology.


Other important consequences follow from the originary hypothesis.  For Gans, language is fundamentally egalitarian and reciprocal:  no act of communication, no sign, “works” unless I assume a listener or reader who can understand what I have understood, and this is because the originary scene depended upon the participation of all.  It further follows that this reciprocal structure of the sign is best realized in the modern marketplace and modern democracy, where all human relations are mediated through exchange rather than direct appropriation.  Modern society has discovered the best ways of recirculating resentment in ways that defer violence—although, of course, it’s not quite that simple since we have also discovered quite a few new ways of generating resentment.  Humanity will never extricate itself from this fundamental tension between expanding resentments and the effort to devise more efficacious modes of deferral; and it is upon this tension that increasing prosperity, advances in civilization, and also greater dangers rest. 


I can only give the briefest sense of the range of applications of the originary hypothesis Gans has made before I return to my argument.  He has shown how the originary hypothesis enables us to make sense of the development of sentence structure, from the ostensive, through the interrogatory and imperative, and finally culminating in the declarative sentence.  Gans takes the originary hypothesis literally as an account of the evolution of human beings, and has paid careful attention to theories of language origin within evolutionary thought—I don’t believe that his claim that language must have emerged in a kind of evolutionary leap, that this leap requires a distinctive event, and that the best way of understanding this event is in terms of the mimetic crisis I described earlier, will be easily refuted (and if it is, we would have a stronger version of the hypothesis).  And he has addressed a wide range of questions in philosophy (for example, his study of paradoxical forms in Signs of Paradox), historical theory, and the arts.


Most important for our understanding of our own originariness, our own relation to Being, is Gans’ account of the Hebraic and Christian revelations, their relation to modernity, and his more recent discussions of victimary discourse and White Guilt.  As Gans has recently written, “The promise of generative anthropology is such that its minimal hypothesis of the common origin of the sacred and the significant offers the most favorable basis for common understanding between those who believe that God created humanity and those who affirm that humanity created God” (Chronicle 326).  And:  “Religious dogma is a reconstruction of the originary event and as such an affirmation of Being, which pace the philosophers has no other source than this event… The minimal faith GA shares with religious dogma is not enough to create an ethos, a common “emic” internality of conceptual vocabulary, but it is sufficient to permit the religious believer to understand GA’s analysis in his own terms” (Chronicle 327).  To put it simply, the generative anthropologist and the religious believer are speaking about the same thing, only in different terms.  This makes conversation possible, without making any claim that all vocabularies of the sacred can be reduced to a single one.  It also makes criticism of any particular revelation possible, though, by treating such revelations and their elaboration in ritual and dogma as anthropological claims, whose account of the originary scene could be made yet more “minimal.” 


A good example of the way in which originary thought promotes such a dialogue between believer and non-believer can be seen in Gans’ analysis of the Hebraic revelation.  First of all, the name of God given in the Mosaic revelation, “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” “breaks through the confining symmetry of resentment.  It is no longer a matter of replacing the Egyptian gods by another god, even if he be unique, but of substituting for the center closed by the rival Other an open center that is a pure locus of presence.”   The declarative sentence “neither designates a particular center like the ostensive, nor attempts, like the imperative, to reconstitute it.  The declarative does not refer directly to the world; it constructs a model of the world on the internal scene of representation that all men have inherited from the originary event.  The God whose ‘name’ is a declarative sentence makes himself accessible only as spirit” (Science and Faith 62-3).


Implicit in this account of God as the “declarative sentence” is the radical break Judaism made with forms of faith in which the center is occupied by a god with a name, a god who can be made accessible to (or through) those with ritual privilege.  Drawing upon anthropological accounts of the “big man” who, in primitive communities, transcended the primitive (and limited) egalitarianism of the hunter/gatherer community, Gans sees monotheism as a renunciation of the centralization of ritual privilege and economic distribution represented by the “big man,” who ultimately becomes the “Oriental despot” of the ancient Near East.  The God who “is” “I am/will be what I am/will be” can be no more accessible to one than another—in a sense, he is only accessible through a renunciation of any attempt to confine Him to a single representation.


The monotheistic God, in that case, transcends the God/King configuration of the ancient world.  As Gans suggests, this shift from an officially established ritual/distributive center to a relation between an unpossessable God and each individual involves a shift from an ostensive to a declarative relation, which is to say a thoughtful, distancing and liberating relation to the center.  Furthermore, God is no longer a quasi-“big man” Himself, whose decisions we can hope to sway:  rather, He mediates the relations between humans by universalizing the resentment toward anyone who would seek to usurp the center.  Here we can see the origins of modern democracy and the modern market system, in the move away from transactions between margin and center towards exchanges between those located on the margin. 


Even more, this understanding of God opens the possibility of a linear, narrative understanding of history.  There is a paradox in the Hebraic revelation:  the universal God must be revealed to someone, and before He is universally accepted, those caretakers of the revelation will have to bear witness to the reality of this invisible, inscrutable God.  Jewish history thus becomes a drama of universal interest, in which the Jews’ faithfulness to the covenant is tested by events, and in which events take on meaning as punishments or rewards for (in)sufficient faith—punishments and rewards which we can already see in the Bible (as Spinoza noted) are effects of the community’s ability to sustain what are simply the conditions of existence of a self-governing nation.  Here, then, in the community that testifies to the particular universal revelation vouchsafed it by history, we see the origins of the modern nation.


A crucial question in the West’s relation to Islam is whether Islam contains such a mechanism of self-criticism that would allow for self-governing communities.  As a non-expert, going according to what I hear, even from voices sympathetic to Islam, and those wishing to present it in terms palatable to citizens of the Western democracies, it seems to me that the defeats and disappointments of Muslim communities are far more likely to be attributed to external intrigues and internal betrayals than to failures attributed to and shared by the community as a whole, thereby requiring further deferral of divine promises pending collective repentance.  No other element of our Judaic heritage is more important to communicate to Islam, if it is to indeed be transformed into a form of faith compatible with the modern world, than a narrative structure that encourages perpetual renewals of the community’s relation to the sacred origin (and one that accepts irretrievable loss) rather than simply reiteration of the original terms of the revelation.


The universal morality extracted from the egalitarian structure of the originary scene by Judaism is then made available to each individual through the Christian revelation.  In demonstrating that the Jewish teaching on God must transcend any particular collectivity, Jesus’ preaching returns each of us to our undifferentiated place within the originary event (where the mimetic crisis undoes pre-human animal hierarchies).  In so doing, though,


“Jesus focuses all differential attention on himself, becomes the universal object of desire and resentment.  Conceived in opposition to worldly difference, the prophecy of the moral kingdom absorbs all difference to itself; the resentment formerly diffused through the social hierarchy is now concentrated on the person of the prophet, who inevitably becomes its unique victim.  He who comes to abolish ethical difference arrogates to himself by that very act an absolute difference.  The crucifixion makes the prophet of universal reciprocity the unanimously chosen victim of this difference.  But as Saul’s conversion will demonstrate, and as the parallel with the originary scene suggests, universal persecution is equivalent to divinization” (Science and Faith, 98-9).


Now, the question of whether God actually spoke to Moses through the burning bush or to the Jewish people at Sinai; or Jesus in fact rose from the dead, are secondary to the anthropological knowledge contained in these revelations.  The revelations are what Gans calls “auto-probatory”:  events that must have occurred for the discourses concerning them to have been composed.  What would it mean, in other words, to say that someone “made up” Moses’ dialogue with God?  Whoever made it up must have experienced something themselves, or been privy to such an experience, that “matched” the account.  If something utterly unique, and yet containing universal, and urgent, truth, has occurred to me, by definition I must discover or invent the terms through which I could convey it to you, and there is no possible arbiter between differing modes of conveying that truth.  And the question of whether it is the truth, then, can only be answered by whether you and others in turn become witnesses to that experience. 


So, if you are able to cultivate a consistent resentment toward attempts to occupy and control the sacred, then you have “proven” the Jewish truth; if you are ready to take upon yourself the “absolute difference” of the one who declares the truth of universal reciprocity precisely in antagonism towards what is most sacred to your community, then you have “proven” the Christian truth.  And the more you offer or, indeed, embody, such proof, the more the narratives in which they have come to be conveyed seem the best or even only (or, at least, to imply, include, or point to, the more seriously one comes to take them, the best or only) way in which they could be conveyed.


I will leave out of this discussion the kind of civilization we have built, and may still be building, out of these revelations.  Instead, I will move directly to the implications of GA for our struggle with Islamic terror.  For Gans, the last major revelation experienced by Western society was that resulting from the Holocaust.  The genocide against the Jews revealed both the general consequences of leaving uncorrected the kind of invidious racial/ethnic distinctions unaddressed or even exacerbated by the early stages of Western market society; and, more specifically, the explosive potential of the resentment toward the Jews as the “cosmopolitan” symbol of that market society on the part of those who saw themselves as “excluded” or betrayed” by it.  On one level, this is another in the long series of revelations demonstrating the superior deferral capacities of the sanctity of the individual implicit in modern liberal doctrine as an inheritor of the Jewish and Christian revelations. 


On another level, though, the Holocaust has been transformed, in an accelerating manner following the fall of the Soviet Union and the removal of any external threat to market society, into a frame which transforms each and every asymmetry, no matter what its origin or purpose, no matter how innocuous, into a form of persecution on the “Nazi-Jew” model.  This leads to the pervasive White Guilt in Western societies which has become a genuine obstacle to formulating coherent purposes and strategies in our war against Islamic terror, and to which Gans has turned his attention in the last couple of years.  (Here, I am drawing heavily on Gans’ series of articles on White Guilt in his on-line “Chronicles of Love and Resentment”:  see White Guilt I; White Guilt II; White Guilt III:  Democracy and Firstness; White Guilt IV:  Auschwitz and Hiroshima; and White Guilt V:  The Vietnam Syndrome.)


We are all, by now, intimately familiar with White Guilt:  the slightest expression of patriotism, of public faith, any distinction between preferable and less preferable forms of behavior, and much more, represents a slippery slope moving at the speed of light to some “final solution.”  This is the dominant form taken by today’s Left, and has been diagnosed by, among others Shelby Steele in his White Guilt:  How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, who shows how it leads to a monumental abdication of responsibility on the part of elites.  For White Guilt—the “guilt of the unmarked toward the marked,” as Gans puts it—any action taken by the stronger (which is to say the more civilized, militarily and/or economically advanced party) is imminently genocidal, even world-destroying.  The entire process of liberated modern society, in which producers and consumers compete on the market, nations compete within the world nation-state system, students compete for places in better schools, neighbors compete over the better tended lawn is nothing other than the very mimetic crisis which threatens humanity itself. 


GA must, of course, acknowledge these dangers, but while GA would have us seek out the mechanisms of deferral in our civilizational repertoire, the representational resources which have evolved over the centuries, and within the uncentered free market system, White Guilt takes these very resources and this very system to be the driving force of the violence endangering the world.  Mimetic activity itself, in a world possessed of such destructive capacities, is the threat.  Within a free system governed by universal rules there is no guarantee that the particular victim will be recognized and this exposes the entire system as a gigantic hypocrisy—indeed, aren’t such slow moving, indirect, imperfectly applied rules aimed precisely at providing cover for the powerful as they carry out their predations?  The checks and balances are merely a façade, and will ultimately give way to unrestrained rivalries leading to total destruction.  Hence, for example, the fanatical insistence upon relying on international law and the UN for the settlement of disputes:  such institutions are putatively beyond mimetic and competitive rivalries, run, as they are, by disinterested experts and bureaucrats.  Rather than impersonal market mechanisms which operate after the fact to register the effects of millions of individual exchanges beyond anyone’s control or predictive capacities, though, transnational progressivism, the political form of White Guilt, seeks to pre-empt such free exchanges and therefore necessarily leads to the most “personal,” despotic form of control, reducing all of society, in effect, to so many health and safety issues.


As I said, we are all aware of these phenomena—what GA adds to our understanding is an account of the sacred roots of White Guilt, beyond the specificity of racial relations in the U.S. or any other context.  White Guilt is a religion (Gans went so far as to designate the 2004 election as a contest between two religions, White Guilt and Evangelical Christianity), a religion sacralizing the victim of “Whiteness” (unmarkedness, or, as Gans has been putting it more recently, “firstness”).  Protecting the victim of precisely one’s own community’s most naturalized and taken for granted practices, the practices through which it impinges upon the world, producing innumerable and incalculable effects, is the gesture of deferral offered by the faith of White Guilt.  Now, if we were to construct, purely hypothetically, the ideal victim for the cult of White Guilt, it would comprise the following:  it would be a victim of the previously privileged victim, thereby proving the universality of the system of victimization as opposed to the irrelevance of the particularity of the victim; it would be a victim that resists all efforts at integrating them into the system, a victim whose antagonism to the modern market system is total and uncompromising; a victim who exposes the fraudulence of civilized norms which aim at moderating but really just legitimate the worst (which are really the most characteristic) actions of the civilized world.  In short, the Palestinian suicide martyr, now the model for the broader Islamic resistance to the modern world, Western in its origins but, as we see now in societies like South Korea and India universal in its implications, and hence all the more threatening.  And here as well we see the origins of the burgeoning alliance between the Western Left and Islamic terror.


So, we are dealing with opposing religious faiths, or forms of the sacred—even if White Guilt might best be classified as a Western heresy.  This offers us distinctive advantages in analyzing the phenomenon and fighting back.  As anyone who has ever tried knows, arguing with a member of the “Angry Left” (the Church—or Mosque?—of White Guilt) is as fruitless as arguing with a jihadist must be.  What is called for, in both cases, is not the outrage or disappointment that might be appropriate in dealing with members of one’s own faith, but sustained desecration, aimed first of all at all those elements of these faiths we are least able to live with, but ultimately extending to what emerge as key elements of the system of blackmail rendering the White Guilt/Islamist axis parasitical on the West. 


I will leave aside the particulars of what such desecrations might look like, especially since much of this must be determined by the inventiveness of “cultural warriors” on the ground.  (A quick look at a blog like Little Green Footballs will provide a lot of ideas, though.)  More important for my purposes here is to point to some of the implications of GA for identifying and recovering our own spiritual resources.  GA provides us with the basic elements (not an entire creed) of a “secular faith” enabling those who are not party to the Jewish and Christian revelations to nevertheless unconditionally affirm and even improve upon them while simultaneously locating a kind of sanctity in our worldly institutions.  Such a secular faith goes beyond vapid abstractions like “reason” or “human rights,” directing our attention to the historical events which have yielded the revelations to which we pay our debts and owe our allegiance—the historical events which have provided us with transhistorical revelations of new modes of reciprocity.  To our Constitution, for example, attaches sacrality as a “sign” which once, and still does and might, defer internecine violence by erecting a novel structure of deferral (the various balances and forms of indirection built into it); as it does to the alliances we enter into with those ready to stand with us at the front lines and defend these modes of reciprocity against our common enemies, to the wars we have fought against totalitarian attempts to extirpate the individual and abolish institutions of reciprocity in the name of predetermined historical utopias, and so on. 


What ties all of these modes of sacrality together, I would argue, is the sanctity of the individual as a bearer of a distinctive array of signs which can nevertheless never exhaust what those signs refer to.  In other words, in the individual’s sacred liberty to be what no one could have anticipated we find a thread of continuity back to the originary scene through the Jewish and Christian revelations, our Greek and Roman traditions of intellectual and civic freedom, and modern constitutional and economic liberties—and, we can add, a post-Holocaust understanding of our ultimate responsibility for whatever official acts are carried out in our name, wherever we may find ourselves on the “chain of command.”   (What the revelations of 9/11 might add to our cultural store it is too soon to tell, but I will suggest that the seemingly modest revelation of the abominations which follow from the habit of paying of ransom, literal or metaphorical will be prominent.) 


Now, we cannot “convince” anybody that this complex, articulated, and yet beautifully simple form of the sacred—acknowledging, protecting, eliciting and making oneself worthy of the distinctiveness, the sheer newness, of the other—is “correct.” (Think of all the logical premises one must already accept before this would even make sense.)  We can, though, consistently and courageously exemplify it and thereby make it a pole of attraction for converts from less tried and truthful faiths.  Such exemplification would take varied forms:  a renewed interested in relearning the roots of our civilization in originary terms; an undiluted conviction in our struggle against those who, we can now see, want, and have always wanted, nothing more than to destroy this terrifying freedom in the name of yet another nihilistic, collectivist “big man”; and in the forms of our struggle, revealing new forms of honor and discovering new modes of reciprocity as a mark of our victory. 


And perhaps the preliminary move is the transformation of the absolute asymmetry asserted by the White Guilt/Islamist axis into new modes of symmetry.  This involves first of all assigning responsibility to those who refuse to take it and enforcing rules even if they are resisted as mere weapons in an unfair struggle—the responsibility and rules emerging from the conflict itself, though, not merely existing legal or moral codes (which, indeed, might become liabilities if applied without necessary modifications).  For example, the assassination of terror chieftains (or, for that matter, heads of terror states) would simply be enforcing and making explicit the new rule introduced by the terrorists themselves, that there is no more civilian/military distinction.  We enforce that rule through the exceptional method of assassination (which, in fact, really breaks only unspoken rules of civilized warfare, not any real international or human rights laws) in the name of restoring such distinctions.  Such symmetries will make our enemies a little more predictable to us and us a little less predictable to them.  More important, they deny the different playing fields upon which we must play for Islamic terror to have the advantage.  Simply put, they represent the rejection of blackmail and an insistence that grievances formulated in ways that provide for the ascension of the plaintiff into responsible positions within the existing economic, cultural and political arenas.  More controversial would be firing upon and destroying mosques when terrorists use them as hiding places or as bases from which to wage war.  The point is not only to free up our war-making ability from ridiculous restraints, but to force the masses of Muslims to choose whether they are going to outraged more by our destructions of buildings in the normal course of conducting war or by terrorists from their own faith holding their cultural heritage hostage:  whatever the choice, the result will be a productive stream of “data” for us to interpret.  Another example, already under way, is directing the same kinds of scrutiny to the “mainstream media,” human rights groups and the UN (high priests in the Church of White Guilt) as they have claimed as their exclusive prerogative to direct towards others.  Establishing such symmetries, or rough rules of the game in the midst of the game itself, might, we can hope, lead at some point to genuine reciprocity between communities once those forced to play by the new rules recover from the shock of losing their monopoly over certain cultural and political rituals.  But if it doesn’t, second best would be a clear-eyed assessment of who and what our enemies are and an acceptance that their enmity toward us will not be governed by our timetables (or concessions), an acceptance which will be quite liberating.  Either way, we are governed by an intelligent and whenever possible generous harvesting of our cultural resources.


I will conclude with Eric Gans’ most recent Chronicle, in which he takes on the Islamic effort at instigating yet another “Final Conflict” a designation, he contends, we must accept as our own, but with a difference:

The knowledge that history is a series of Final Conflicts is not a valid excuse for neglecting the Final Conflict we have been saddled with, and certainly not for thinking that we can avoid it by withdrawing from it or empathizing with our opponents. This approach was tried in the 1930s and did not meet with great success. If the stark fact of our enemies’ implacable hatred must be put in "religious" terms for us to understand it, then the jihadis have done us all a favor. We are modern and they are not; in a globally connected world, no meaningful compromise between past and present is possible. Our only viable option is to continue fighting until we have won the battle. Every "cease-fire" is a victory for the enemy. We have vastly more strength, but we need the will to use it.

Assuming that we persevere, our victory will put an end to the Final Conflict between Modernity and Tradition that has been with us off and on since the Renaissance. The apocalypse will have been deferred, but surely not for the last time. In times of peace we tend to forget that ever since the originary event, the primary concern of human culture is the deferral of violence.

It is in this paradox, that each “final conflict” is simultaneously a “new beginning,” that we both recover and generate new origins, and provide ourselves with a sacrality so powerful that if we heed it we will, finally, indeed reduce our enemies to a mere “nuisance,” whom we combat as a matter of course in renewing our acquaintance with our originary capacities, which are far more widely shared and desired than we know.


Adam Katz teaches writing and literature at various universities in Connecticut. He writes on the fiction of Ronald Sukenick and is currently editing a book on Generative Anthropology, entitled The Originary Hypothesis: A Minimal Proposal for Humanistic Inquiry.



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