Category Archives: Theory

Nietzsche: modern people hate pain more than their ancestors did

From before there was penicillin.

The many centuries before there was penicillin.

One of the defining achievements of the modern age has been a vast improvement in the physical well-being of the members of modern societies. People are far less at risk to disease and illness than those of premodern generations, and life expectancies have risen while infant mortality has fallen. While the accomplishments of modern medicine are unparalleled in human history, no less remarkable has been the softening of manners and the condemnation of various social practices for their harshness and cruelty. But such achievements do not appear to foster a greater feeling of spiritual well-being or stimulate great artistic breakthroughs. What gratitude we might feel in having been released from the agonies and afflictions of the past is overshadowed by an ever increasing sensitivity to the pains we encounter in our daily lives, pains which would hardly have bothered those of past generations. Moreover, we discover ceaselessly new areas of vulnerability and new occasions for distress. Even the cessation of pleasures becomes a source of intolerable anguish. Pessimism becomes widespread not only among intellectuals but also in the general public, so that health and the love of life come to take on the appearance of loot acquired by theft or some other underhanded means.

In paragraph 48 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche reflects on how the spread of well-being and comfort goes hand in hand with the rising popularity of pessimistic philosophies:

“Knowledge of distress. – Perhaps nothing separates human beings or ages from each other more than the different degrees of their knowledge of distress – distress of the soul as well as of the body. Regarding the latter we moderns may well, in spite of our frailties and fragilities, be bunglers and dreamers owing to lack of ample first-hand experience, compared with an age of fear, the longest of all ages, when individuals had to protect themselves against violence and to that end had themselves to become men of violence. In those days, a man received ample training in bodily torments and deprivations and understood that even a certain cruelty towards himself, as a voluntary exercise in pain, was a necessary means of his preservation; in those days, one trained one’s surroundings to endure pain; in those days, one gladly inflicted pain and saw the most terrible things of this kind happen to others without any other feeling than that of one’s own safety. As regards the distress of the soul, however, I look at each person today to see whether he knows it through experience or description; whether he still considers it necessary to fake this knowledge, say, as a sign of refined cultivation, or whether at the bottom of his soul he no longer believes in great pains of the soul and reacts to its mention in much the same way as to the mention of great bodily sufferings, which make him think of his toothaches and stomachaches. But that is how most people seem to me to be these days. The general inexperience with both sorts of pain and the relative rarity of the sight of suffering individuals have an important consequence: pain is hated much more now than formerly; one speaks much worse of it; indeed, one can hardly endure the presence of pain as a thought and makes it a matter of conscience and a reproach against the whole of existence. The emergence of pessimistic philosophers is in no way the sign of great, terrible states of distress; rather, these question marks about the value of all life are made in times when the refinement and ease of existence make even the inevitable mosquito bites of the soul and the body seem much too bloody and malicious, and the poverty of real experiences of pain makes one tend to consider painful general ideas as already suffering of the highest rank. There is a recipe against pessimistic philosophies and excessive sensitivity, things which seem to me to be the real ‘distress of the present’ – but this recipe may sound too cruel and would itself be counted among the signs that lead people to judge, ‘existence is something evil.’ Well, the recipe against this ‘distress’ is: distress.”

While acts of physical violence were more common in past ages and individuals were more prepared to bear them, it is clear that Nietzsche is more interested in the suffering of the soul, which, he implies, is doubly endangered in an age where people have become more sensitive to the pains of the flesh. Such people who associate pain with a physical discomfort (“toothaches and stomachaches”) would be incapable of even conceiving of the spiritual anguish necessary for thought. Indeed, to believe that all pains are ultimately physical calls out for merely physical remedies, whether in the form of political institutions or technological advances. Our age is an aberration not only in its conquest of pain but also in its hypersensitivity, which could the very path by which the pendulum swings back into history and back toward life. Or in the case that the pendulum has broken down, then we may have to contend with euthanasiasts who nevertheless cling stubbornly to an eccentric interpretation of the golden rule.

Work cited:

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Paradox as an Aid to the Discovery of Reality: Lefort on Tocqueville

Claude Lefort credits Tocqueville with an “astonishingly free speech,” which arises from his readiness to move behind the “circle of his theses” (35). Tocqueville is not afraid to “overturn his own affirmations,” and “gladly heads down paths that make him lose sight of the guideposts he had set in place.” His style is lucid and direct, yet it is very the clarity of his writing that lends itself to rendering a portrait of social reality as complex and dynamic. But as Lefort points out, the movement of Tocqueville’s thought verges precariously on self-contradiction. The well-known section in Democracy in America decrying the dangers posed by the tyranny of the majority in the United States is followed by a chapter dedicated to the legal profession, where the reader comes across the beliefs and habits that constrain and combat the drift toward the despotism of mass opinion. The profession of the law in the United States fosters admiration for competence and expertise and instills a “sense of permanency” that was formerly provided by the aristocratic hierarchy. The practice of trial by a jury of one’s peers diffuses and reinforces the belief in the rule of law, even among the “lowest classes,” so that the entire population becomes accustomed to thinking and deliberating on matters like a “judicial magistrate” (41). Thus, in contrast to the fear of the power of democracy to bring the citizen down to a lower level of thought and feeling, Tocqueville gives striking account of how American citizens raise themselves to a higher level of thinking by their judicial institutions.

A more striking example of how Tocqueville qualifies, complicates, and then reconciles with a previous assertion is found in The Ancien Regime and the Revolution, where he at first describes the selfishness, short-sighted ambition, and venality of the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie on the eve of the French Revolution, but then in a characteristic reversal, praises them for the virtues that they were able to demonstrate, and not in an insubstantial measure either. “The nobles, we learn, ‘retained even in the loss of their old power [to the monarchy], something of their ancestors’ pride, as opposed to servitude as to law.’” The clergy “has shone so brilliantly by its courage and its independence,” that Tocqueville asks if “there has ever been a clergy… more enlightened, more national, less confined purely to the private virtues, better provided with public virtues, and at the same time, more faith.” To the rising middle class Tocqueville ascribes a “spirit of independence,” and although the bourgeois was driven by vanity and eager to protect his newfound privileges, the “pseudo-aristocracy” he formed with his compatriots was able to produce some of the virtues of a “real aristocracy” (62).

Tocqueville’s method can be called realist, in that he is not concerned with championing any particular political or ideological outlook, but is instead devoted to doing justice to depicting the main features of an age that has arisen in the wake of unprecedented social and political upheavals and that is still caught up in the process of transformation. One could also call his approach “charitable,” in the sense that he strives to find something positive and admirable in developments which fill him with dismay and dread. It enacts perhaps the very sort of intellectual freedom that Tocqueville views as vitally necessary to check the power of mass opinion in a democratic age. One may have no choice but to accept democratic equality, but without intellectual freedom, democracy becomes deprived of its self-correcting mechanisms. Tocqueville’s method, with its attentiveness to paradox, moreover gives his work a novelistic quality, in which the idea of democracy, or aristocracy, emerges with the degree of concreteness and ambiguity that we would associate with a character in a nineteenth-century realist novel. But this ambiguity of course does not hinder knowledge, as it emerges from the nuanced analysis which he devotes to his themes. Democracy in America and Ancien Regime, which rely on the outlook and values of the vanquished aristocracy to give flesh to the democratic age, anticipate in striking ways the essayism of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, his great unfinished novel about the collapse of the Habsburg Austria.

Text cited:

Claude Lefort, “Tocqueville: Democracy and the Art of Writing,” Writing: The Political Text, trans. David Ames Curtis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Human Sacrifice for Atheists

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“When there is a choice in the matter, a great sacrifice will be preferred to a small one: because in the case of the former we can indemnify ourselves through the self-admiration we feel, which we cannot do in the case of the latter” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).

What if human sacrifice as practiced by Carthage and elsewhere were performed not in the spirit of belief but rather that of disenchantment? In the manner of young people who cut themselves in order to feel their reality or those who have suffered abuse as children who become driven to abuse themselves, what if the Carthaginians sacrificed their children not out of fear at the presence or proximity of cruel and dangerous gods, but out of resentment over their disappearance, out of indignation that these gods had abandoned them? “Look at how I am hurting himself, I dare you to appear in the presence of my pain, you miserable devious bastard!”

This would be a variation on the social game that psychologist Eric Berne calls “Now I’ve Got You You Son of a Bitch.”

An absent parent is able to exert a fascination over the child that a present one, who is compelled by daily life to reveal his faults and defects, cannot — why should the same not hold for deities? But such a fascination is entwined with one’s feelings of helplessness, of feeling oneself tyrannized by forces that because they are absent, one cannot pin down, and because their first move is one of abandonment, one finds oneself at pains to come up with any possible counter-measure to nullify the symbolic deficit they create.

This is not to deny that the practice of human sacrifice would have had its practical uses in terrorizing the poor and humiliating the ambitious, and providing group solidarity. And perhaps the love of money is a critical factor as well (the Carthaginians would rather lose a war than their wealth and once got out of paying the mercenaries in their employ by massacring them). The enjoyment of luxury, like all enjoyment, is sweetened by cruelty.

Plato and Thucydides on changes in the meanings of words

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

He wrote of ungovernable passions.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Socrates decries what he regards as the corruption of speech in democracy. The democratic individual has no compunctions about altering the meaning of basic human qualities. He dismisses “reverence” as “foolishness,” despises “moderation” as “cowardice,” and calls “insolence” “good breeding.” (560c-e). He exalts “anarchy” as “freedom,” “extravagance” as “magnificence,” and “shamelessness” as “courage.” Is this a case of the individual wishing to cast his vices as virtues, or is it a reflection of the slippery nature of linguistic signs, according to the doctrine whereby meaning is socially constructed, and for that reason elusive and unstable?

This passage brings to mind the famous lines from the History of Thucydides, where he describes how the contagion of civil strife debased and corrupted the civic life of the polis:

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened in previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration on the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime” (242-243).

Acts of brutal violence, including those that claimed innocent lives, became regarded as expressions of courage, while anyone who counseled restraint was denounced as a coward. The passage is preceded by a hair-raising account of a massacre on the island of Corcyra, in which the democratic faction, emboldened by the imminent arrival of their allies from Athens, turned on the members of the oligarchic faction, who had sought sanctuary in the temple of Hera. Cut off from any possibility of escape, many of the suppliants committed suicide or killed each other to be avoided being slaughtered by their fellow citizens. Some were dragged out of the temples and butchered over the altars, their killers possessed by a cruelty and brutality that violated the most sacred of bonds and shattered elementary human restraints, as even fathers turned against their own sons and slew them. But Thucydides notes that not everyone who took part in the bloodbath was driven by political motives: debtors liquidated their debts by assassinating their creditors and those with vendettas took advantage of the lawlessness to kill the objects of their personal hatred.

Thucydides concludes that there was as “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world,” as the “simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist” (244). One could regard the readiness to think and expect the worst of others, and even to take pre-emptive action against them, as the logical consequence of civil war breaking out within the city-state. “Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.” Yet, for Plato, the shift in the meanings of qualities and attributes indicates that there is a psychic dimension behind this corruption. The decline of what Thucydides calls the “ancient simplicity,” in which human beings are capable of calling virtue virtue, instead of trying to pass off a negative quality as a positive one, is from this standpoint the result of a shift in values and outlook as much as it is the response of individuals to external events taking place in the polis.

The democratic soul in the Republic is defined by the refusal to draw any distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. In a sort of anticipation of modern relativism, Socrates claims that democratic man is open to all experiences and desires, but is dogmatic on one score, which is that all yearnings and aspirations are to be considered equal to each other in value, and thus that none can be valued above another. The belief that one should honor all desires on an equal basis follows from the denial that there is any kind of hierarchy of values toward which one should orient one’s life or according to which a people should organize the terms of their communal existence. We thus encounter an aporia in which all values are equally correct, except for the belief that one value is superior to another.

The belief in the equality of all desires does not emerge in the dialogue as a concession to human fallibility, nor is it an expression of humility, epistemological or otherwise, as borne out by the inescapably hostile and antagonistic attitude of democratic man toward the idea that some desires are superior to others. Relativism then and now masquerades as a kind of truthful individualism, a sober recognition of the limits of human capacities and a hard-headed skepticism toward the delusions into which so many fall. But the sliding of moderation into cowardice, courage into shamelessness, and other terms into their opposites reveals that the belief that all desires should be honored equally is a mechanism for trying to place oneself beyond the judgment of others. What the equality of all desires, coupled with the readiness to manipulate language so that vice becomes virtue and defect becomes merit, aims at is to make the individual immune to criticism and reproach. It appears that one cannot make all desires equal without converting vanity into an entitlement.

The corruption of language returns us to a definition of justice enunciated at the opening of the dialogue by Polemarchus, who calls justice “doing good to one’s friends and doing harm to one’s enemies” (332d). The perversion of words into their opposites not only flatters the democratic individual by placing him beyond criticism, but they also enable him to define social reality in self-serving and instrumental ways. Thus, when one’s friends act impulsively, it is “courage,” but when your enemies do the exact same thing, it is “shamelessness.” But the violence that is done to language is a shadow of the actual violence being committed by factions against each other. The willingness to use language in a self-serving way amounts to a declaration of war, but one could also say that it impairs the ability to wage war, because by means of it the individual gives himself permission to see the world as he wants to see it, not as it actually is. Indeed, to persist in calling a courageous enemy “cowardly” is to underestimate him and thus to invite disaster. Tragic realism would compel us to be as honest as possible in how we regard our enemies, and make us realize that it is necessary to acknowledge the virtues of the enemy if one is to improve one’s chances of victory or achieving a satisfactory peace.

The disintegration of the Greek world took place in large measure because men were “swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions” (245). The “ungovernable passions” are the straightest path toward the war of all against all.

Works cited:

Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1988.

My other blog

I have started another blog, “The Worldly Ascetic,” on which I will post my thoughts and reflections about the experience of South Korean modernity. The first post focuses on a lecture given by Emanuel Pastreich at the Seoul Museum of History on Neo-Confucianism and the work of the philosopher and fiction writer, Park Jiwon.

Apocalypse of the Therapeutic: The Cabin in the Woods and the Death of Mimetic Desire

More fatal than the other six.

Deadlier than the other six.

Note: This is a draft of an article submitted to an essay collection focusing on the work of René Girard.

Readers of René Girard are familiar with his thesis that the primary source of conflict in the modern, secular world is rivalry, which is no longer constrained by the sacred hierarchies and sacrificial practices that defined the archaic community. For Girard, the danger posed by the escalation of rivalry and competition in modernity is the necessary and unavoidable consequence of the demystification of sacrificial violence. Although the Bible has succeeded in dispelling the essential illusion on which the efficacy of sacrifice depends, this moral breakthrough has at the same time deprived human beings of the beliefs and mechanisms that enabled them to control violence in times of crisis. The Judeo-Christian revelation has the effect of leaving the world more at the mercy of rivalry and antagonism than ever before. Whereas the hierarchy of class and networks of interlocking duties formerly restrained and moderated competition, whether by curtailing the material aspirations of the common people or by channeling ambition into otherworldly directions, modern society, by removing these social barriers, exacerbates feelings of envy and resentment as equality becomes the defining value.[1] Modernity, in drowning the ambitions of the nobility and the devotions of the religious in the icy water of equality and egotism, brings men to face the real conditions of their life and relations with each other, which for Girard means unconstrained antagonism.

The disappearance of sacrifice leaves only “mimetic rivalry,” which is prone to “escalate to extremes.”[2] According to Girard, the breakdown of the sacrificial illusion leaves modern societies hovering on the brink of apocalyptic calamity, in which the outbreak of mimetic conflict can easily escalate into the effort to annihilate entire peoples. Human beings are thus left with a stark dilemma, in which they must choose between becoming “reconciled without the aid of sacrificial intermediaries” and resigning “themselves to the imminent extinction of humanity.”[3] Although he framed this either-or during the penultimate decade of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the globe, Girard has continued to insist on the relevance of this formula for the crises of the present – the war on terror, ecological destruction, and economic meltdown – on the basis that they remain subject to the possibility of apocalyptic escalation. Yet in his recent books, Girard’s remarks imply that a different interplay of forces might be at work in contemporary consumer society and that his model of mimetic conflict may require some rethinking in light of present-day realities. In one dialogue, he admits that it might be the case that “contemporary individuals aren’t strong enough to have mimetic desire,” a development which he had earlier regarded as unthinkable: “Consumption society, which was ‘invented’ partially to cope with mimetic aggressive behaviour, has eventually created these socially indifferent human beings.”[4] Similarly, in his discussion of anorexia, Girard observes that “our entire culture looks more and more like a permanent conspiracy to prevent us from reaching the goals it perversely assigns to us.” It is thus “no wonder” that “many people want to drop out, as a result of sheer exhaustion, and also, perhaps of a peculiar type of boredom.”[5]

What happens when one loses the willingness or the capacity to copy the desire of the other? The only alternative to mimetic desire that Girard offers in any detail is its overcoming: the spiritual liberation in which one renounces rivalry and gives up the fantasy of one’s exceptional status in a manner that evokes and encompasses the Christian experience of conversion. Can the loss of desire, and the impulse to drop out of an increasingly ferocious competition for status be grasped within Girard’s paradigm of mimetic rivalry, or does it call for fundamental revisions to his theory of imitative desire? Indeed, other theorists such as John Gray and Jean Baudrillard take as their point of departure the dilution and enervation of desire in a society characterized by unprecedented affluence and the dissolution of taboos and prohibitions. In taking up the question of what causes these mechanisms of mimetic desire to unravel in the absence of a spiritual revelation, and how a narrative portraying such a collapse might lead us to reconsider or revise Girard’s theory of violence, I will examine a recent metafictional work of horror cinema, The Cabin in the Woods, as well as the work of Gray, Baudrillard, Pierre Manent, and Philip Rieff. These thinkers focus on the kind of nihilism which Girard, I will argue, underestimates.

The dissolution of mimetic desire that takes place without reference to a spiritual conversion is likely to be a tale of horror, as it points to a psychic condition where there is neither hope nor anything one desires. Yet one of the chief emotions evoked by horror cinema has been the intense desire to live. Carol Clover observes that the “final girl,” the courageous and intelligent female who alone among her friends escapes death at the hands of the serial killer or monster, demonstrates an “astonishing will to survive” in withstanding brutal tortures, repeated reversals of fortune, and severe injuries to escape her assailant and even to defeat him.[6] But recent horror narratives feature endings where no one is spared a violent death, including children and infants, or depict evils that are so overwhelming as to drive characters to suicide. In The Mist (2007), which deliberately evokes monster movies from the more optimistic decades of the American century, a father shoots his own young son to prevent him from being killed by the grotesque creatures that have entered the earth from another dimension. In the comic The Walking Dead (2003-present), the climax to one of its major story arcs breaks a taboo of mainstream entertainment by depicting, in a panel that takes up the entire page, the killing of the hero’s wife and infant daughter. It is an ending that Gerry Canavan describes as the “moment” when “the circuit of reproductive futurity is cut” and “all hope is lost” in the series.[7] Such depictions of suicidal despair are not limited to comics and popular films, nor is the despair merely suicidal – in the art film Melancholia (2011), written and directed by Lars von Trier, the depressive heroine curses all life as “evil” and welcomes the impending destruction of the earth in a collision with another planet.

We could account for the fascination with such unrelievedly bleak narratives in terms of the demand for novelty, since nothing ages more rapidly in modern mass culture than spectacles of violence and transgression, and so even more shocking images must be contrived in order to arouse the interest of the viewer. But these representations of crushing hopelessness and despair evoke the finality of extinction itself, a turn which also indicates the exhaustion of novelty itself. But is it possible to grasp this fixation with extinction and annihilation, an event which is impossible to integrate into any psychic framework or symbolic system, as yet another instance of the escalation of mimetic desire that for Girard defines the modern, post-sacrificial age? Can the “traumatic reality of extinction,” which in Ray Brassier’s view not only erases the future but also voids the past of any meaning, become a proper object of mimetic rivalry?[8] Or could it be that sacrificial murder does not constitute the most foundational form of violence after all, and that there is a violence that is more anterior and thus more foundational still, one which would generate the desire for annihilation itself?

Maybe it gets worse when man finally becomes man to man.

Maybe it gets worse when man is no longer wolf to man.

One of the most promising narratives with which to unravel these questions is the recent horror film, The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Drew Goddard and co-written by him and Joss Whedon (2012). As a work of metafiction, the film operates as a playful, self-reflexive satire when it is not offering up scenes of carnage, but its resolution has special relevance for Girard’s theory. For The Cabin in the Woods culminates in the failure, with apocalyptic consequences, of a sacrificial ritual. Moreover, this apocalypse, which results in the destruction of humankind, results from a decision that, within the moral universe of the film, appears wholly justified and legitimate. The film opens with the clichéd premise of five undergraduates traveling to a remote and isolated house in the country for a weekend of partying. Each of the students evokes a distinct social type, corresponding in turn to the archetypes from whom the sacrificial victims must be drawn: the athlete, the prostitute, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. The five friends inadvertently summon demonic creatures that attack them in the order one expects in a horror film. But the film also reveals that these creatures are being controlled by a group of technicians working in an underground bunker beneath the cabin of the title. The technicians belong to the American branch of an organization charged with arranging the slaughter of the young as part of an ancient ritual to appease the dark gods that slumber deep beneath the earth. If these “ancient ones” are not satisfied by the bloodshed, they will rise up and destroy all human life on the planet.

The Cabin in the Woods alternates between two storylines. In the cabin and the surrounding environs unfolds a familiar horror scenario, in which the students, in the course of drinking and playing truth-or-dare, come to explore a hidden basement. Descending into the dark and sinister cellar, they come across strange artifacts, which exert an irresistible fascination on the group. By handling these items, the friends cause undead ghouls to emerge from the depths to murder them. In the underground complex, on the other hand, the managers and scientists meticulously orchestrate the events above-ground. They monitor the vital signs of their victims, use chemicals to tamper with their hormonal levels, alter the temperature in different sections of the forest, and prevent escape by blowing up a tunnel. The entire operation takes place in a high tech bunker that calls to mind NASA or perhaps more properly NORAD, given that the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Yet the banter between the two chief administrators is made up mostly of ribald jokes and risqué observations about their co-workers as well as the five doomed youth. They run a betting pool in which the various departments (engineering, maintenance, accounting, R&D, bio med, digital analysis, security, electrical, psychology, etc.) make wagers over which murderous creature will be chosen by the five victims as their executioner.

Both storylines are defined primarily by their comic elements. In the case of the five friends who are to be offered up to the dark gods, the humor arises mostly from the disparity between them and the roles they are forced to play as part of the sacrificial ritual. Jules, the woman who is given the role of the whore in the rite, is in fact a studious pre-med major, and so the organization resorts to adulterating her hair dye to reduce her intelligence and weaken her inhibitions. She shocks her friends with her wantonness when, during a game of truth-or-dare, she plays at kissing the head of a wolf mounted on the wall. She becomes so swept up by her role that her tongue makes contact with that of the decapitated trophy. Later, when she sways erotically to a song with sexually wanton lyrics, the camera cuts to a reaction shot of the virgin, Dana, and the scholar, Holden, gaping in shock and embarrassment. The athlete Curt makes crude remarks about Jules’ sexual desirability and then rubs into Marty’s face the fact that he and not the latter will be having sex with her. Marty, who as the fool is the only male in the group without a female counterpart, is not insulted but puzzled by Curt’s bluster, which he finds uncharacteristic of him. When Dana expresses skepticism toward Marty regarding his suspicions that they are being observed and influenced by shadowy forces, he reminds her that Curt is a serious student who is receiving a full academic scholarship. While Dana and Holden for the most part do not conflict with the roles assigned to them, Marty perhaps fits too well the role of jester for the purposes of the ceremony. Although his head is in a cloud of marijuana smoke for the first half of the film, he is the only one of the five to suspect that something is gravely awry. Indeed, Marty’s behavior proves disruptive and unpredictable to those in the control room, and his words and actions on several occasions threaten to ruin the ritual altogether.

"Your human needs disgust me."

“Your human needs disgust me.”

While the scenes focusing on the young victims usually involve an irony that is not always humorous, the scenes in the control room play out as a black comedy in which the lewd and coarse repartee of an upstart tech firm or too-big-to-fail investment bank is transposed into an institution charged with performing human sacrifice. Making bets on how the victims will be butchered and eager to watch the woman assigned the role of the whore engage in sexual foreplay, the personnel working for the organization in Cabin in the Woods fail for the most part to display the solemnity and reverence one would expect from murderous cults that commit atrocities to placate dark gods. Instead, we are presented with a series of humorous episodes in which the chief administrators, Sitterson and Hadley, make crude remarks laced with sexual innuendo, gyrate their hips to the music played by their victims, and otherwise display an arrogance that would be insufferable if the nature of their work were not straightforwardly horrifying. Only two employees demonstrate a degree of seriousness about the operation. Mordecai, the grim and repulsive old man whose job is to give the young victims fair warning about the sinister history of the cabin – is turned into the butt of a joke when he calls the control room to confide to Hadley his worries that the ritual could turn out badly. Daniel Truman, who is the new head of security, is secretly horrified by the proceedings and keeps to himself, refusing to take part in the betting pool or to celebrate with the others when it appears that the sacrifices have been succeeded in propitiating the evil gods.

At the premature celebration of their success, the lower-rung employees complain about not receiving overtime and make pathetic romantic overtures to each other, while the video screen above them shows Dana being thrashed by a ghoul. It is thus with elation and delight that the viewer takes in the destruction of the complex and the slaughter of its personnel, after Dana and Marty, who also survives the attack of the undead, release all the monsters from the menagerie. What follows is a spectacular encyclopedic montage of post-1970s horror film, as demonic creatures and fantastic beasts set about massacring the employees. Swarming into the complex, the monsters voraciously dismember, devour, impale, stab, strangle, and set fire to panic-stricken scientists in lab coats and managers in button-down shirts. A wraith pulls a guard’s soul from his body, while goblins tear apart their victim and throw half of the bisected corpse against the camera. Zombies feast on mutilated scraps, while a ballerina whose face is made up of fangs pirouettes through the carnage. The sadomasochistic demon from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser tortures an employee hanging upside down from the ceiling, and the face-hugger from Alien leaps onto the shoulders of its prey to implant its lethal egg. The film cuts between direct shots of the carnage and images of the massacre shown on multiple video screens used by the security system, lending a documentary immediacy to the massacre of the organization’s personnel.

In unleashing the monsters on the organization charged with sacrificing them and their friends, Dana and Marty cause the ancient gods to reawaken. An encounter with the director of the organization, played in a cameo by Sigourney Weaver, almost convinces Dana to kill her friend Marty for the sake of saving humankind. In a nod to Carol Clover’s ground-breaking study of horror films, the ritual stipulates that all the designated victims must perish except the virgin, who herself need not die but only suffer. The timely intervention of a werewolf prevents Dana from firing the gun she has aimed at her friend. In the final moments of the film, the two friends, bruised and soaked in blood, reconcile and huddle together to share a joint while the complex collapses around them. The final image of the film is of a giant hand rising from the depths to smash the cabin.

The two groups portrayed in the film – the attractive victims slaughtered above and the leering workers below – are not enmeshed in mimetic rivalry with each other, but it is nevertheless the case that there is an unbridgeable gap between them. It is properly inconceivable for the members of the organization to place themselves in the role of the sacrificial victim, just as Dana and Marty are stunned by their discovery of the organization seeking to offer them up to vicious gods. Although Dana aims her pistol at Marty when informed that the salvation of the world depends on his death, she hesitates because she cannot quite assume the subjective position of the director who urges her to murder her friend. The film accordingly does not stage the “destruction of differences” or allude to the threat of reciprocal violence, both of which for Girard serve as key conditions for the recourse by the strife-wracked community to sacrificial violence.[9] Instead, the characters are too weighed down by their own perspectives to be swept up into the orbit of envy, imitation, and disavowal that enables one first to identify with the object of sacrifice, then dismiss the doomed other to his fate, and finally reap the fruits of sacrifice. The inability to respond imaginatively to the other, even if the ultimate purpose is to ensure his or her murder, appears to sap the qualities needed to bring the brutal and pitiless ceremony to a successful conclusion. Indeed, the brief moment when Hadley expresses his awe and admiration for the pluck and resolve shown by Dana to keep fighting even in the face of impossible odds comes to an abrupt end when he is distracted by the arrival of his subordinates bearing liquor to celebrate the completion of the ritual. Similarly, the one occasion on which Sitterson behaves with solemnity is when he mutters an anxious and fearful prayer of supplication to the ancient ones just after the zombie family has butchered the unfortunate Jules, their first victim.

These latter scenes reveal that the ceremony of sacrifice has degenerated into a sterile, utilitarian exercise. It has become, in the absence of reciprocity, a vacuous, contractual operation which is destined sooner rather than later to run off the rails. The element of reciprocity for Girard both exacerbates rivalry and hastens the recourse of the community to finding a scapegoat in order to prevent conflicts from escalating  into the war of all against all, the ultimate expression of reciprocal violence. The absence of reciprocity in the film, by contrast, has the effect of depriving the organization of perhaps the only effective countermeasure to the possible uncovering by the young victims of the apparatus behind their suffering and death. If a member of the organization were selected to be slain as part of the ritual, perhaps by fulfilling the archetypal role of the adult who makes a courageous but futile effort to save the young victims, then perhaps the director might have succeeded in persuading Dana to save humankind by appealing to her sense of guilt. On the other hand, the neglect of the organization of the advantage of participating in the sacrificial ritual as victims alongside the doomed youth conceals a form of violence that, though notably lacking in mimetic character, sets in motion an outcome perhaps no less destructive than unchecked mimetic rivalry.

The new head of security is in no mood to party.

Only the new head of security is in no mood to party.

For the belief of the technicians in efficiency is far stronger than their awe of the sacred or their fear of annihilation. They are willing to have others die for their sake, but they are unwilling to do everything in their power to prevent the worst of all evils. Indeed, it never occurs to them that there might come a time for them to do everything in their power, because to this point at least one of the rituals, which play out in multiple locations across the globe, including Stockholm, Rangoon, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Berlin, has always managed to succeed. The ugly reaction of the administrators to the shock of learning that the Japanese team, which had hitherto a perfect record of success, is so unabashed as to be comical: Sitterson leans over the video monitor, screaming out obscenities at a group of intrepid elementary school-age girls holding hands in celebration after having defeated a demonic spirit: “The Japan group should have had this in the bag! They fucked us! How hard is it to kill nine year-olds?” The technicians in The Cabin in the Woods thus exemplify the subjective position in which one is willing to have others suffer and die for the sake of one’s own comfort and well-being but is unwilling to put at risk one’s own life and well-being, even for the sake of defending one’s self. They only come around to fighting for their lives when it is too late and the instruments by which they secure their safety and well-being – or the entities they have instrumentalized for this purpose, turn against them. Such a disposition is not the consequence of mimetic desire running rampant or of its magnification in the competitive capitalist market, but rather of the death of desire, in which the will and attention required for purposeful action are dissipated in advance by the constant need to keep one’s eyes from glancing at an obscure verdict against oneself.

According to John Gray, what endangers desire is the immense affluence achieved by the industrialized world. The high-tech, hyper-capitalist economy that has spread across the globe since the late 1990s is distinguished by the fact that it depends not on “stimulating demand,” but instead on “inventing new vices.”[10] The most characteristic products of an economy “driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty,” which requires the “manufacture” of ever more “exotic needs,” are S&M clubs and drugs like Viagra and Ecstasy. But we would be wrong, argues Gray, to understand the ceaseless production of transgression as the consequence of the cheerful and insouciant pursuit of hedonism. Rather, “designer drugs and designer sex” are not “just aids to pleasure” but more importantly function as “prophylactics against the loss of desire.” Provocation and transgression, and their constant escalation, have become economic necessities in a race to forestall the satiety that would cause the economy to unravel. Yet the constant exposure to formerly forbidden spectacles and experiences cannot stave off the uneasy thought that such a way of life cannot have a healthy and peaceful future ahead of it: “The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.”[11]

This secret suspicion, and the directionless anxiety it arouses, is what supplies most of the humor in the sequences set in the underground facility, as we come to realize, with a touch of uneasy identification, that Sitterson and Hadley have been unknowingly laughing at their own violent deaths. But the virulent effects of this festering doubt do not spare their intended victims either. Marty, in one of his marijuana-induced soliloquies, gives voice, on the level of everyday wise-cracking, to the sentiment that the social and economic order is undeserving of continued existence: “Society needs to crumble, [but] we’re all just too chicken-shit to let it.” Indeed, it is the decision of Dana and Marty to doom the world that make evident the peculiar psychic deadlock created by this verdict. For although their treatment at the hands of the organization is clearly outrageous and unjust, the two friends do make a choice that goes against the good of all. Yet, the film depicts their refusal to sacrifice themselves as the logical and natural response to a social order that needs to commit inhuman violence for it to continue. Martyrdom and self-sacrifice have become accordingly inconceivable where the only choices are to betray one’s friends or die as a dupe for gloating jackasses. On the other hand, even if one accepts that the decision they reach is an unavoidable one, it is hard to suppress the thought that the two friends arrive at it with inordinate haste. Dana and Marty, in subjecting the world to a cruel demise, are not constrained by the hope that there might be some uncorrupted quarters of human life – for example, the principle that children are innocent of adult vices and should not be punished for the wrongdoings of their elders does not factor at all in their deliberations.

In The Cabin in the Woods, it appears that humankind is annihilated in a fit of thoughtlessness, which evaporates all doubts as well as their not inconsiderable benefits, by protagonists who have come to the realization that there is nothing enviable about their own existence. The ending of the narrative thus poses a fundamental challenge to Girard and his theory of violence. For Girard, what is to be feared most in the demystified, modern age are manifestations of what Nietzsche called active nihilism, exemplified by mass ideological movements that embark on cataclysmic, self-defeating attempts to restore the practice of sacrifice. The collapse of Soviet communism has not caused the threat of planetary conflict to diminish by any appreciable degree. Rather, Girard characterizes the era of globalization as one in which “mimetism has gained ground since 1945 and is taking over the world,” with radical Islam as the most conspicuous form of “violent imitation” that has become the “rule today.”[12] The denial of sacrifice in The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, implies that the dangers of passive nihilism, having to do with the weariness and decline of the powers of the spirit, should not be underestimated. Indeed, passive nihilism, the hallmarks of which are resignation, self-disgust, morbidity and the readiness to resort to opiates and euthanasia as an escape from these feelings, has become more widespread than the more vigorous and energetic varieties of nihilism in those parts of the world pacified by globalization.

In contrast to the heated and passionate violence borne of rivalry, Baudrillard argues that the violence endemic to the global system of interconnected markets and interdependent economies derives from the impulse to prohibit violence. The global system, spearheaded by the West, seeks to impose a society “in which conflict is virtually banned and death forbidden.”[13] It aims at establishing a monopoly that would subject all cultures to an “unforgiving law of equivalence.” But such an undertaking to proscribe violence is self-defeating and doomed to end in catastrophe, not so much because it stokes mimetic passions and harnesses them to a project of domination, but rather because the global system seeks to universalize itself at the very historical moment when the ideas and values that constitute and legitimate this universality – “human rights, democracy, and freedom” – have become drained of substance.[14] The neglect of “symbolic equilibrium” means that, like the hapless individuals running the sacrificial organization in Cabin, we can no longer properly conceive of being placed in a situation of “having to do everything in our power,” even if it looms right before our eyes. Far from being a sign of our freedom or a proof of our moral progress, Baudrillard likens our exemption from sacrifice to the condition of slavery, in which we have been stripped of the right to give a part of ourselves back to the “technical system of generalized exchange and general gratification.”[15] The deeper source of violence in the global system lies in the fact that globalization is a project advanced by a “culture that has lost its values” and “can only take its revenge on the values of others.”[16] Operating under the horizon of consensus, the global system cannot conceive of the other as anything other than a criminal, and its understanding of itself as “obvious Good” means that, unlike traditional empires, it cannot even conceive of the long-term advantages or strategic prudence of allowing the enemy a right to his otherness.[17] The other, has become an entity whose difference is a temporary aberration and who is fated to share the same pleasures and to submit to the same appetites as oneself.

The destruction of values does not require the exercise of deadly force to proceed, and it can also be carried out by people who have no idea of what they are doing and who possess no awareness of the impact of their actions. Baudrillard’s account of global violence goes a long way toward explaining why Marty and Dana, though lacking malevolent or vengeful intentions, nevertheless act with a hubris that is invisible to them. For the judgment whereby they condemn the world rests on the certainty that the emptiness of their lives, as well as those of their persecutors, is the ultimate destination of modernity. Although they are quick to recognize the global system as destructive and sterile, they nevertheless cannot help giving their assent to its values in their conviction that the deprived will become just as depraved and as undeserving of life as the wealthy should they themselves ever attain wealth and status. They are, in effect, the products of a culture that, in the words of Meic Pearse, has “excommunicated all cultures” but their own, as well as their own “past.”[18] Dana and Marty might chafe at having to be attired in the mantle of the virgin and the motley of the fool for the purposes of the ceremony, but they fail to realize that these costumes are draped over the nakedness of a still more radical commission, that of the mediator, which confers on them the imperial prerogative not to envy or copy the beliefs and dispositions of the other. Accordingly, they find it natural to suppose, or to cling to the conviction, that they have circumnavigated all human desires and found them empty. This belief, to be sure, has nothing to do with arrogance in any conventional sense, because it presumes that human beings are incapable of resisting or rising above their appetites. In other words, it considers its foundations base enough and lowly enough to nullify any accusations of elitism or oppression.

Such an attitude is in essence totalitarian, as it issues from an act of closure toward vital and enduring human realities. It denies that human beings are capable of dedicating themselves to ends and objectives that transcend self-interest. For although Dana and Marty make uneasy references to the need for “a change” and to give “someone else a chance,” the film makes clear that the other for them can be nothing other than demonic. Unlike the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, the totalitarianism of the present, which, in accordance with what Philip Rieff calls the therapeutic, is based on the eradication of all “renunciatory modes” and “creedal constraints.”[19] It does not impose moral demands on the people for the sake of creating a new society or incite them to persecute targeted minority groups or mobilize them for war. Instead, it is a totalitarianism of the individual, centered on his desires as well as his feelings of powerlessness, which operates through a volatile and contradictory pair of injunctions. On the one hand, the individual is told that it is hopeless to struggle against his weaknesses and appetites. To be human is to submit to nature. No one can sincerely believe that one can have too much money, or that anyone would forgo the sexual opportunities that come with an improved social status. On the other hand, he is also told that, in addition to being equal to others in his submission to nature, the only thing that stands in the way of his efforts to raise his status is an unjust status quo. To be an individual is to be free of the bounds of nature, since nature is merely a social construction that can be reshaped and re-engineered to alleviate one’s resentments and grievances.

These contradictory injunctions comprise the divided and ambivalent heart of a totalitarianism that operates by means of inflated pride and low moral expectations, yet this very deadlock serves as the fuel for a staggeringly prosperous economy. But as Stephen L. Gardner points out, such an economy requires a “vast amplification” of personal and public debt to keep the resentments and grievances of individuals from boiling over and destroying society.[20] The capitalist market succeeds in transforming “envy, jealousy, resentment, rage,” and the other forces that endanger human societies into sources of profit, but it cannot escape periodic crises created by imbalances of appetite and the flagging of desire, or, more disastrously, by the onset of self-hatred when the population becomes poisoned with disgust at the spectacle into which it has made itself. [21] The strategy that capitalism adopts toward the debts it accumulates and the social crises it sets in motion can only be one of postponement, but the longer it puts off the day of reckoning, the more devastating this reckoning will be when it finally arrives.[22]

In The Cabin in the Woods, this strategy of postponement is shown arriving at its inglorious demise. Desire can no longer be sustained, in spite of the brutal fates to which the adults are willing to abandon their children. Like other varieties of the katechon, institutions which employ measured doses of force and fraud to stem the tide of chaos that would otherwise sweep away the possibility of commodious living, the capitalist market serves to distract human beings from the dark truths regarding their conditions of life, postponing in effect their confrontation with the violent foundations of social existence. Girard frames the exposure of this elemental violence as an apocalyptic encounter: the individual, upon being confronted with the violence that founds the community – and continues to contribute to its well-being – may shrink from the implications of this disclosure and double down on his or her defense of sacrificial practices, a path which Girard on numerous occasions emphasizes will lead to global destruction.[23] The other choice at this moment of cataclysmic danger is to renounce violence in manner that Girard associates with the Gospels. The endings of such films as The Cabin in the Woods and Melancholia imply that Girard’s theory must make room for a third possible response to the revelation of foundational violence alongside the reactive defense of sacrifice and the renunciation of violence: impotent self-hatred.

It is difficult to imagine that this third response would not be far more common than the other two, as it belongs to those who have become convinced of the pointlessness of all communal purposes and who lack the will and inclination to commit themselves to a spiritual discipline.[24] In other words, it is the response proper to passive nihilism. After being deprived of the distractions afforded by an expanding capitalist market, such individuals are henceforth delivered over insignificant and helpless to an evil that strikes them as pervasive and omnipotent. They cannot find a way to integrate this knowledge into a historical narrative, whether Hegelian or realist, or a spiritual framework, such as the Augustinian doctrine of the fallenness of humanity. They are thus plunged into guilt at having been the beneficiary of cruelties and injustices while being unable to take consolation from the virtues and struggles of the past. Thus, far from imagining that they can take meaningful action on behalf of victims undergoing persecution and oppression, they appease at most their guilt by consenting to piecemeal measures that are likely to worsen strife and escalate conflicts but do not at the outset appear to erode their standard of living. The revelation, moreover, that domination is the way of humankind leads them not to renounce domination altogether but to maximize the petty dominations, sexual or economic, that they believe will never rise to the level of a communal or political purpose. Such individuals end up doing what the founding myths sought to prevent men and women from doing, which, in the words of Manent, is to “stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.”[25]

This “stumbling” may take men and women back to the cruelty of their origins, but for all the turmoil and despair it stirs up in them, it does not serve to deepen their sense of historical identity. They are not led for the most part to wonder about how previous generations might have dealt with such knowledge, and why it would not have triggered in them the same response of overpowering horror. The monsters of the contemporary imagination cause them to revert directly to cannibalism without experiencing an interval of mere barbarism. The horror they evoke reflects our collective decision to feed on ourselves. For the immobilization of perspective is a consequence of the pact that the totalitarian individualist has made with himself or herself to salvage his or her pride from humiliation, which Gardner calls the “definingly democratic passion,” the “sense of nothingness experienced in self-comparison to others.”[26] It is to defend his or her pride as the final redoubt of a brittle and precarious identity, rather than to embrace a spiritual discipline based on compassion for the other, that the therapeutic individual heeds the Girardian commandment not to copy the desires of the other.


[1] René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 137.

[2] René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010), p. 198.

[3] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 136.

[4] René Girard, Pierpaolo Antonello and João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 251.

[5] René Girard, Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, trans. Mark Anspach (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), p. 36.

[6] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 36.

[7] Gerry Canavan, “’We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative,” Extrapolation 51.3 (Fall 2010): 444.

[8] Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 239.

[9] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), p. 127.

[10] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Animals (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 163.

[11] Ibid., p. 160.

[12] René Girard, Battling to the End, pp. 42, 13.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner (Verso: London, 2003), p. 98.

[14] Ibid., pp. 88-89.

[15] Ibid., pp. 102-103.

[16] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[17] Ibid., p. 100.

[18] Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 51.

[19] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), p. 15.

[20] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt: Capitalism and Cultural Revolution,” in Debt: Ethics, the Environment, and the Economy, ed. Peter Y. Paik and Merry Wiesner-Hanks (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 95.

[21] Ibid., p. 109.

[22] Ibid., p. 95.

[23] See for example Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, pp. 180 and 251, Battling to the End, p. 103, Evolution and Conversion, p. 237.

[24] Stephen L. Gardner, “The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man,” in Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), pp. 232-233.

[25] Pierre Manent, “La leçon de Ténèbres de René Girard,” Commentaire 5.19 (Autumn 1982): 462. Translation mine.

[26] Stephen L. Gardner, “Democracy’s Debt,” p. 96.

Baudrillard on Domination and Immortality

The postmodern age is defined by the disintegration of symbolic efficacy, a condition characterized by the weakening of social norms, the withering of social bonds, and the inability of human beings to undertake and complete social mandates, such as large-scale political projects.  While many have attributed the breakdown of belief in collective structures and institutions, as well as in the actions that create and maintain them, to the collapse of state socialism, Jean Baudrillard in Symbolic Exchange and Death instead probes the transformations on the level of the symbolic that have given rise to the unprecedented social reality of the affluent society.  In this work, Baudrillard thinks through with thorough-going rigor the defining features of post-industrial society and produces not only an important work of post-structuralist theory but also an indispensable contribution to Christian theology.

Here are some of the main insights of this work:

1. Power consists not of the capacity to put another to death, but rather of the privilege of allowing the other to live (40).  What the master denies the slave is not the right to live, but rather the right to die.  Marx, in Baudrillard’s view, had it backwards.  What the master “confiscates” from the slave is his death, while retaining exclusively for himself the right to risk his life: “Whoever works has not been put to death, he is refused this honour” (39).  For the irrefutable mark of the superiority of the master is his readiness to give up his life to die a glorious and heroic death.  Labor is accordingly revealed as the enslavement to a “non-deferred death,” whereby the reality of domination is secured by the denial of exchange: “If, through labour, the exploited attempts to give his life to the exploiter, the latter wards off this restitution by means of wages” (41).  Domination hinges on this basic asymmetrical relation, in which the master guards the unilateral nature of the gift of death – in other words, he refuses by means of the wage the death that the slave might give him by ceasing to labor and by attempting to become himself a master.

2. The breakdown of symbolic efficacy is bound up with the loss of immortality as a social and cultural value.  The problem for us is that the “dead cease to exist,” that is to say, we have “thrown” them out of “symbolic circulation” (126).  The liquidation of tradition consists of the “obliteration” of the dead, so that they no longer exert any influence on our day-to-day doings.  G. K. Chesterton once defined tradition as the “extension of the franchise” to “our ancestors,” in order to prevent the despotism of the “small and arrogant oligarchy” of those whose sole claim to rule rests on the mere fact that they happen to be alive and breathing (Orthodoxy).  But today, “it is not normal to be dead, and this is new.”  Our society has become a tyranny of the living, in which dead are banished from the symbolic positions they held in previous societies as objects of reverence, scorn, admiration, fear, emulation, and dread.  Indeed, it is our symbolic exchange with the dead that produces distinct human types, as it is the limitation of death that solidifies one into a character.  The cult of limitless choice in late democratic capitalism on the other hand stifles the emergence of distinct types, producing instead the hesitant and unsettled personality that is always anxious to withhold himself for the sake of keeping all his options open.  The aim of a society that is sealed up in its present can only be a pacified and repressive “socialisation,” and cannot raise its concerns beyond the short-term survivals of its distractions.

3. The pleasure of poetry arises from the fact that poetry recreates the form of symbolic gift-exchange enjoyed by primitive societies.  Whereas our economic system is based on endless accumulation and thus on endless waste, in a good poem, every meaning is “consumed in a rigorous reciprocity” and every word finds its “corresponding term” (200).  Baudrillard argues that poetry is not merely the commemoration of the god or hero, but the very return of the god or hero to his death, and thus constitutes the playing out of his death, which is reenacted in the ritual of sacrifice.  For we moderns are “naïve” to believe that “savages” tremble in superstitious fear of their gods.  Rather, their rites enact their “ambivalence” toward their deities, “perhaps they only ever roused them in order to put them to death” (209).

Texts cited:

Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant.  London: Sage, 1993.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.  http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.html.

Pierre Manent’s Critique of René Girard

From “René Girard’s Lesson of Shadows” by Pierre Manent

While preparing a talk for the upcoming meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, which is dedicated to the study of the ideas of René Girard, I translated the final paragraphs of Manent’s article on Girard.  It was published in Commentaire Vol. 5, No. 19 (Autumn 1982), pp. 457-463.

[…]

But more than that of Marx, Freud, or Nietzsche, the theory of Girard attaches itself to that of the greatest master of suspicion: Machiavelli.  Machiavelli also affirms that the foundation and preservation of cities are essentially violent, and that men live out continually the beneficial effects of this violence which they are not willing to look in the face.  But Machiavelli himself knows what he says: if that which we call humanity is founded on violence, then it is necessary to maintain the active power of violence and prevent men from falling under the influence of a misguided non-violence – that of Christianity – which tends to destroy the very conditions of its humanity.

For Machiavelli, the cultural differences in the interior of the cities – and first the difference between virtue and vice, between good and evil – differences which he does not contest as such but admits are conditioned by, and subordinated to, an amoral violence which circumscribes the space – the city, precisely – in which moral differences can have a meaning.  The question is the following: does the Machiavellian gesture, which places before the eyes of men the role of violence in the constitution of the human world, reveal a truth that their hypocrisy or their blindness keeps buried?  Or, to the contrary, does the scandalous revelation of Machiavelli blind men about themselves far more gravely than does their hypocrisy?  Do men not have good reasons to “stem” the violence?  In fact, their hypocrisy is founded on this: they sense obscurely that the end of social life is irreducible to its violent origin; the sacralization of the origin, which effaces or transfigures the violent aspects of this origin, is the expression of this intuition.  The founding myths are more clever than realist science.  The mythic transfiguration of the foundation guarantees that, in the pursuit of their end, the citizens do not stumble interminably over the scandal of their origin.  The origins of any city cannot be absolutely justified in conscience; it is for this very reason that men have had to hide from themselves this origin if they are to live according to their conscience.  That this conscience is inseparable from a certain “false consciousness” which is a “good conscience” indicates only that the realization of the humanity of man in the social world is subject to constraints and limitations, but not that it is radically dishonest, or mystified, or alienated.  The scandal of Machiavelli which sets the limits of the city – the constraints which weigh on the birth of the city – the nature of the city blinds men to their proper nature far more seriously than does mythic hypocrisy.

The Machiavellian path is made possible by the Christian revelation which desacralizes the human city; it desacralizes it, not in revealing that it is essentially violence, but in announcing another city in the composition of which violence has no place at all.  The Christian revelation announces a more total accomplishment of the human, incomparably, than that which is possible in the bounds of nature.  Grace does not destroy nature.  Assuredly, earthly cities being necessarily bound to a certain violence, both foundational and preservative, the Christian revelation tends to underscore the illegitimacy of all earthly cities.  And to reconquer the legitimacy of terrestrial cities, Machiavelli must affirm that the nature of cities is essentially violent.  Thus he turns Christian revelation against itself in unveiling that it is against nature.  Machiavelli reinterprets political life as violence in reinterpreting the Christian revelation as essentially non-violent, thus as essentially fallacious, thus as productive of a violence worse than “natural” violence (cf. what Machiavelli calls the “pious cruelty” of Ferdinand of Aragon, The Prince, XXI).

Girard abides strictly within the terms of Machiavellianism.  To put it simply, he gives a positive sign where Machiavelli gave a negative one, and vice-versa.  But this reversal is absurd.  If the political nature of man is violence or founded on violence, then the non-violence of Christianity is what Machiavelli calls violence against nature, the violence of the second degree, or “pious cruelty.”  If human culture is founded essentially on violence, then Christianity cannot bring anything else other than the destruction of humanity under the fallacious appearance of non-violence.

Christianity According to René Girard: The Lesson of Shadows 

The Christianity of René Girard is a strange revelation.  It reveals to men not their supernatural destination, but the truth of their nature or their “culture.”  It is a sort of Interdisciplinary Super-Institute of Social Sciences.  It tells them what they can know without Revelation.  The proof: Girard, who at least does not pretend to any supernatural revelation, knows what Christianity is better than generations of believers, theologians, and saints who have followed the faith for two millennia.  At the same time, Christianity reveals to men that their nature is essentially evil, because essentially violent.  The revelation reveals that creation is evil.  But this creation is “evil” not on account of sin but simply because it is violent: men only become men by means of sacrificial violence.  The properly Christian consideration of sin can give way to the “scientific” point of view formulated perfectly by Hobbes: “The desires, and other passions of man, are in themselves no sin.”  Reducing sin to violence, making violence the principle of the humanization of man, Girard makes sin into a principle that does not index the fallenness of humanity.  An innocent and powerless God reveals to men that they are sinners without being guilty of sin, hence they are not sinners at all in the sense that part of their being partakes of sin.  It is a manichaeism without good or evil, a manichaeism equipped with the “axiological neutrality” of the human sciences.  “Christianity” reveals to men the shadows which surround them, and that the “light of nature” of which they avail themselves is founded on the shadows of violence.  The light of grace serves only to humiliate the weak glimmers of nature.  Grace destroys nature.  Machiavelli’s satire against Christianity becomes the truth of Christianity by the ministry of a “theory of culture.”

The Florentine believed himself to have humiliated Christianity irretrievably.  He was mistaken: in its humiliated humility, a perverted Christianity finds a motif of elevation, of an elevation not at all religious, to be sure, but “scientific.”  One is never wicked enough: when the “humble” have no more plays to offer, they can still produce a theory.

False in its own genre as a theory of culture, false in its own class as a work of demystification, false in what is proper to it as an interpretation of Christianity, the theory of Girard is also as false as a theory could be.

Tocqueville and the Either-Or of World-Creation

Time flies when you’re constructing a new universe.

In one of the most interesting passages in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lays out the hard distinctions between aristocracy and democracy.  In considering what separates the old order from the new, he sounds a bit like an author setting out to create a science-fiction universe, or least as a philosopher giving advice to a fiction writer about the creating coherent and credible alternate universes.  Here is the section in which Tocqueville describes the defining traits of aristocratic societies:

“What are you requiring of society and its government?  One must be clear about that.  Do you wish to raise the human mind to a certain lofty and generous manner of viewing things of this world?  Do you wish to inspire in men a kind of scorn for material possessions?  Is it your desire to engender or foster deep convictions and to prepare the way for acts of deep devotion?  Is your main concern to refine manners, to raise behavior, to cause the arts to blossom? Do you crave poetry, reputation, glory?

Are you intending to organize a nation so that it will exercise strength of purpose over all others?  Are you giving it the aim of undertaking mighty projects and leaving an impressive mark upon history, however its efforts may turn out?

If, in your estimation, that should be the main objective of government, do not choose a democratic government because it would not steer you to that goal with any certainty” (286).

As for democracy, its merits and limitations are of an almost entirely different order:

“But, if it seems useful to you to divert man’s intellectual and moral activity upon the necessities of physical life and to use it to foster prosperity; if you think that reason is more use to men than genius; if you aim to create not heroic virtues but peaceful habits; if you prefer to witness vice rather than crime and to find fewer splendid deeds provided you have fewer transgressions; if, instead of moving through a brilliant society, you are satisfied to live in a prosperous one; if, finally, in your view, the main objective for a government is not to give the whole nation as much strength or glory as possible but to obtain for each of the individuals who make it up as much well-being as possible, while avoiding as much suffering as one can, then make social conditions equal and set up a democratic government” (286-287).

These passages are indicative of what I consider to be Tocqueville’s realism, in which he not only reflects on the respective advantages of the two forms of society, but also specifies their respective shortcomings and how these deficiencies are at the same time bound to what he finds meritorious in each system.  Aristocracy is by far the more extreme arrangement: tremendous injustices side-by-side with glittering achievements, in which intense devotion, unconditional commitment, and deep piety are balanced out, as it were, by debauchery and transgression.  Democracy, on the other hand, seeks to look after the good of the many, which yields a milder and more relaxed society, where virtue can be joined to happiness through good habits and reasonable and moderate aspirations.  Tocqueville is clear about the trade-off involved in building a society in which the majority can enjoy well-being and prosperity: democratic culture will be far less brilliant and much more materialistic than those produced by aristocracies.  The fact that aristocrats are prone to dissipation and excess also make them capable of demonstrating a “haughty scorn” for material comforts and therefore of displaying “unusual powers of endurance when ultimately deprived of them” (616).

For Tocqueville, what matters most in an aristocracy is a “lofty idea” of man it raises up for itself.  It is not any artist or general but Blaise Pascal, demystifier of the superiority of the nobility by asserting its basis on convention, who for Tocqueville exemplifies the highest fulfillment of the aristocratic drive for splendor and greatness.  Democratic societies, on the other hand, exist within a materialistic horizon, in which lofty ambitions and tyrannical injustices alike have become alien.  In a sense, Tocqueville is saying that if one lives in a democracy, one cannot hope for more than a wide distribution of well-being.  One must make peace with the reality that great and outstanding works of human genius, like the political revolutions that produce democracies, will become rare.

The value of Tocqueville’s thought for contemporary politics consists in how it may shake us free of the currently accepted constellation of designations and values that structure the oppositions between left and right, Republican and Democrat.  Perhaps environmentalism, which seeks, if not to “inspire scorn” for consumer goods, at least attempts to make us more open to the idea of living with less, contains a strong aristocratic dimension, which is not surprising if we consider that it is generally the well-off who espouse environmentalism as a kind of lifestyle choice.  Perhaps it makes more sense to view socialism, which entails imposing limitations on the aspirations of those seeking to increase their wealth, in certain vital respects being much closer to aristocracy than to democracy.  Democracy itself is hostile to the principle of authority as such, with the consequence that democratic peoples, by their nature, cannot allow “any innovator to gain and exercise great power over the mind” (745).  Whereas it is authority that allowed for the abuses of the aristocracy, its erosion under democracy is what, Tocqueville predicts, will serve to immobilize political life in democracy.  It is hard not to regard Tocqueville as a prophet when surveying the current political landscape:

“It is generally believed that new societies will change shape day by day but my fear is that they will end up by being too unalterably fixed in the same institutions, the same prejudices, the same customs, with the result that the human race may stop moving forward and grind to a halt, that the mind of man may forever swing backwards and forwards without fostering new ideas, that man will wear himself out in lonely, futile triviality and that humanity will cease to progress despite its ceaseless motion” (750).

Text cited:

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald Bevan.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Why I am not an Epicurean, or, the Future of Immortality

Our book group is discussing Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which traces modern secularism back to the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius.  Among the chief teachings of Epicureanism are that there is no afterlife and that the most important goal of human life is the gratification of the body.  It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I am an opponent of Epicureanism.  But I object to it not so much on traditional Christian grounds, on the basis that it denies the immortality of the soul.  Rather, I criticize Epicureanism because, in both its ancient and modern varieties, it rejects the idea that human experience has a historical dimension.

In the West, there are broadly speaking two paths to defeating the onslaught of time and overcoming the oblivion of mortality.  The Christian doctrine of the immortal soul teaches that to be saved is not only to be given the blessings of an eternal life but also to have one’s mortal existence be stamped with a divine and infallible meaning by the providence of the Creator.   The Homeric view, by contrast, holds that the only way for human beings to conquer time is to achieve glory and renown.  The only immortality, and the only significance, comes from writing one’s name into history by means of extraordinary acts of valor.

The Homeric path was not cast aside with the triumph of Christianity over pagan antiquity, rather it was preserved by Christianity as it widened the scope of acts that could be crowned with glory: the spiritual warfare carried out by ascetic discipline and acts of extraordinary charity and renunciation, in addition to acts of military valor.  This desire for glory later became ensconced in the realm of culture in the figure of the great artist, whose works, though misunderstood by his or her contemporaries, would pass the test of time and receive the renown due to them by future generations.

It is striking to me the extent to which the idea of any work having some kind of trans-temporal significance is bound up with the Christian idea of immortality.  Hardly anyone declares today the need to write for future generations, or expresses with confidence, natural to earlier periods, that a certain work of art would increase in importance with the passing of time.  Could it be that in losing the Christian idea of immortal soul, we lose the confidence to imagine the future, let alone a future populated by people whose beliefs and practices might be wholly different from our own?  Even our term expressing the capacity to maintain significance and weight over the course of time, “trans-temporal,” is redolent of feebleness and hesitation.

Do we need a belief in an immortal soul in order to be able to view ourselves acting in history, or to trust that there are certain actions that are worthy of being commemorated (I exclude the contemporary cult of victimization, if only for the fact that it does not honors people for anything that they actually did)?  It negates the view prizes the active life, that human initiative and the unfolding of human powers are noble and laudable things.  Instead, we seem stuck within a never-ending and empty present, filled with self-recrimination over the past and nameless dread over a blank future.

In a way, it could be said that my criticism of modern secularism is that it is insufficiently pagan, that is to say, modern secularism of the type espoused by Greenblatt and the American liberal establishment is still Christian, all too Christian, without the sobriety and discernment that Christianity was able to provide by preserving the vital elements of pagan antiquity.  It could be said that our problem is that negating Christianity does not bring us back to the vitality and lively innocence of Homer, but rather enchains us in the morbid guilt of a post-Christian world that has not killed God but merely closed off memory and sterilized passion.