english arabic


second part


A Dialogue on the Middle East

and Other Subjects (1of 2)


Ammar Abdulhamid & Eric Gans


Editorial Notes: This text was composed in September-October 2001 as an interview intended for publication in the Arabic-language webzine Maaber (www.maaber.com). In part because it clarifies my position on matters that have preoccupied us since September 11, I requested Mr. Abdulhamid’s permission to publish it in Anthropoetics. Taking advantage of what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier, I have appended some additional material in green. – EG

[Maaber’s editorial team have also taken advantage of the same esprit de l’escalier and have appended some commentaries in red. – DA]


EG – Before beginning, I would like to commend you for your courage and perseverance in keeping a West-Middle East dialogue going at this difficult time, which is precisely when such dialogue is the most necessary.

AA – For the benefit of your Arabic readers who are, for the majority, quite new to the concepts of Originary Thinking and Generative Anthropology, please give us brief definitions of these terms.

EG – The term “Generative Anthropology” (GA) was suggested to me by my publisher; I had wanted to use “genetic anthropology” (translating the French word génétique) but in English this would refer to genetics. Thus the term implies no relationship with Chomsky’s “generative grammar.” The central idea of GA is that language, and human culture in general, insofar as it falls under the general category of “representation” or the use of signs, emerges as a collective, “scenic” means of deferring the violence occasioned by mimetic desire. Perhaps the simplest characterization of humanity is that it is the species that has more to fear from its own members than its natural environment, including predators, starvation, and everything else. (The terrorist attack on New York provoked someone to remark that this was harder to bear than a natural disaster because “you know they wanted to kill you.”)

GA begins with René Girard’s model of human desire as mimetic or imitative; each person’s desire is incited and reinforced by the desire of others. As a positive force, mimetic desire helps us to acquire new values and learn new behaviors. But it also has a negative side: since we all imitate each other’s desire, we all tend to become rival contenders for the same object. As our ancestors became more human, they became correspondingly more mimetic, with the result that the potential violence of their rivalry became too great to be controlled by animal modes of communication. I hypothesize that the first use of representation arose as a means to prevent, or, as I prefer to say, adopting a term of Jacques Derrida, to defer this mimetic violence. A capsule formulation of the fundamental hypothesis of GA (which I call the “originary hypothesis”) is that the human is uniquely characterized by the deferral of violence through representation. In a scenic configuration, with the participants on the periphery of a circle and an object of desire (say, a source of food) at the center, each wishes to appropriate the object for himself, but, as each fears the others, his gesture of appropriation is cut off from its object and transformed into the first sign. Thus the linguistic sign may be considered an “aborted gesture of appropriation.” The sign as a re-presentation of the object can be shared by all participants, and each communicates through it to all the others that he has renounced his attempt to possess the object. At the same time, this concentration of all signs—of all significance—on the central object is the originary model of the sacred. Thus one may consider the first sign the name-of-God.

All cultural activities remain scenic, even when the scene is internalized in the individual imagination. GA is a way of thinking about human culture that derives its fundamental categories from the originary scene. For example, the principle of reciprocity is fundamental to most conceptions of morality, in particular, to Kant’s famous “categorical imperative.” But where does this principle come from? GA’s answer: from the reciprocal exchange of signs in the originary scene. Each emits the sign and at the same time is aware of the others’ equivalent action. Since we all possess language, we are all potential interlocutors. The inequalities that generate resentment—an important concept in GA—may all be understood as exclusions from dialogue.


A few years ago I began to use the term originary thinking as a synonym for GA in order to make clearer that Generative Anthropology is not a branch of the academic discipline practiced in Anthropology departments. GA is a way of thinking about the human. As such, it does not have a specific research program of its own—something that makes more difficult its acceptance in our university system—but it can help clarify the fundamental presuppositions of all disciplines, including Anthropology, that deal with human culture.

I agree. “GA is [probably] a way of thinking about the human”—an approach, in a certain sense. And maybe also “it can help to clarify the fundamental presuppositions of all disciplines”. But—and that is for me the most important—I cannot accept the concept as a whole because it can tend to confuse things; because, as Mr. Gans says, “we all (may) tend to become rival contenders for the same object.” I think that such a concept of the human being, characterized by the “deferral of violence through representation,” is interesting; but I do not like it. It was maybe important at the early beginnings of humanity; but things now are supposed to be different. – Akram A.

AA – In one of your Chronicles, you described Western Civilization as “the most successful of human enterprises.” A recent point made in the debates of the GAlist raises the issue of applicability of the basic concepts of GA, such as minimality, to other cultures. Before we go any further, then, it might be important to wonder: how Western is GA really, despite its universalist aspirations and claims?

EG – If I understand your question, you are asking, “Isn’t GA really (just) a Western mode of thought?” Certainly GA was developed in the West, and it owes a great deal to the vision of (Judeo-)Christianity, or the (Judeo-)Christian vision, of René Girard. This in itself says nothing about its universal applicability, any more than it would for a hypothesis in physics or biology. But a theory of culture is of necessity itself an element of culture; and because human beings naturally resent exclusion from dialogue, it is impossible simply to propound a universal anthropology without reflecting on its origins in a particular culture.

I don’t think it is chauvinistic to point to the success of the Western mode of “liberal democracy” in creating for its members both prosperity and (relative) political freedom. I can’t prove that these are the highest human values, but the number of people who seek to emigrate to Western-style nations seems proof enough, as it was in the days of the Berlin Wall. Who would not prefer better health care, a longer life expectancy, and more options in every domain of human activity from work to food to leisure?

Is attractiveness a sufficient criterion for the success of a certain culture? And are the people attracted for the right reasons? There are several examples where a dictatorial regime afforded its people better health care and educational systems, longer life expectancy, etc. Yet, does this mean that dictatorial systems are to be embraced? In fact people are being attracted to the West in general in search of higher material standards, and not out of conviction in democracy and market economy. But, again, is material success a sufficient reason for us to pronounce an entire civilization as a success? Aren’t there other criteria involved in the making of a civilization and assessing its success? – AA

If one seeks to understand what it is that has permitted this superior effectiveness, one is led to compare the forms of organization in different social groups. The modern market system arose in the Christian world, and even beyond Max Weber’s well-known association of capitalism with the “Protestant ethic,” it owes something to the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God as the mutual recognition of individual souls. I think one can make the case that “consumer society” is motivated by a worldly form of this very vision: each individual’s unique pattern of consumption makes him a recognizable model for all the others.

But, however important it may be to explain the origin of the market system, this is a backward-looking quest, whereas the point of any research is to improve things in the future. It seems to me that today’s global marketplace is no longer adequately described as “Western civilization.” To the extent that it can be viewed as such by those who feel excluded from it, it has not yet fulfilled the essential task of any social organization, local, regional, or global, which is to defer violence. Nor will this task be accomplished, as some superficial critics suggest, through the elimination of all cultural differences for the benefit of MacDonald’s and Coca Cola. Globalization has given us Chinese jazz, French rap, and California-Thai restaurants. The essential thing is to increase the global exchange system’s degrees of freedom—and this means helping less advanced societies to benefit from participation in it.

To those who cite the resentment of the enemies of the global market as proof of its fundamental inadequacy, I can only say that, although a great deal of divergence is possible concerning the way in which the world order will evolve, the very nihilism of recent attacks on this order, from the farce of the mindless rioting at WTO meetings to the tragedy of suicidal mass annihilation, demonstrates that there is no real alternative. Forgetting their moral horrors, atavistic regimes like that of the Taliban cannot even feed their people. For the world as a whole to follow their path, it would have to lose nine tenths of its population. It is nevertheless imprecise to call the al Qaeda terrorists nihilistic. Although their religious motivation makes them indifferent to the annihilation of the world, it provides the ground for a “medieval” Islamic utopia, all the more powerful in that its realization on earth is not indispensable.

But your question has a theoretical as well as a practical point: does GA’s principle of “minimality” not in fact exclude the values of non-Western cultures? I do not think so. The claim that all human culture is dominated by the problems posed by mimetic desire could perhaps only have been formulated in the West during the postwar or postmodern era. But the evidence for this claim in every culture is overwhelming. I don’t think it’s a Western prejudice to believe that people are all basically the same, that only their forms of organization differ, and that, over the course of history, some of these forms prove more effective than others and tend to replace them. Certainly I have never seen any evidence to the contrary.


AA – What are the mechanisms of “exclusion” at work here in your opinion, I mean with regard to the global marketplace? How much of it do you think is intentional due to greed or some form of superiority complex vis-à-vis other cultures? Is the idea of “the virtue of selfishness,” advocated by Ayn Rand among others, manifesting itself here, be it consciously or unconsciously?

EG – The “virtue of selfishness” as the motor of market society goes back at least to Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714). Others, in contrast, have cited the mutual trust that is essential to the operation of the market system. Rather than emphasize either trait, I would simply insist on the notion of minimal constraint; people are both good and bad, selfish and generous, but the optimal exchange system is one that permits individual interests to interact with each other as freely as possible, as opposed to systems where the distribution-system is centrally controlled.

I don’t think the difficulties of integrating the less-advanced economies into the global market should be seen from the perspective of “exclusion”; this is a victimary term, and, as you know, I think that in the post-millennial era the persecutor-victim model is increasingly less useful. Indeed, rather than seeing international relations as the zero-sum game of “imperialism” in which the resentment of the poor countries is taken as a sign of their exploitation by the wealthy ones—not that this never happens—this resentment is better understood as reflecting their lack of presence in, and profit from, the marketplace. Rather than depending on, say, African nations for their profits, the advanced economies today scarcely know that Africa exists.

Advanced economies might scarcely know that Africa exists so long as they can still get the row materials produced there at the comfortable prices they fix. The same goes for all underdeveloped countries, specially with regard to oil. Exploitation, in my opinion, is still the major cause of resentment vis-à-vis the advanced economies, though I agree that we cannot ignore the existence of obstacles to “progress” in the cultures, traditions and mentalities of the peoples of the underdeveloped world. – AA

There is no simple formula for successfully integrating all economies into the global market. Neither coercion nor charity are very effective. But the current outpouring of resentment, however horrible its mode of expression, should be understood as a sign that this integration is indeed taking place, and that, barring world catastrophe, those who prefer medieval society to globalization are reacting against the inevitable.

The crucial question here is not simply how to integrate all economies into the global market, but how to reduce inequality. There is no proof, so far, that a successful integration into the global market will solve this problem. There is much inequality in the advanced economies themselves. So it seems that the existence of inequality, and perhaps even the perpetuation of it, is part of the system itself. I believe this is a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed. We have plenty of examples of underdeveloped economies that have been integrated into the global market with devastating social and economic consequences. Is this simply a passing phase? Will the situation improve in the future. One can hope so; but so far, all indications are to the contrary. – AA

AA – With the collapse of the Soviet Union and what has been described as the downfall of communism (though one can hardly tell considering the continuing proliferation of communist parties and ideologues out there), the notion of free market economics now dominates the scene. You seem to be quite a “believer” in this system; how much of a “believer” are you? What would you have to say about programs such as Affirmative Action meant to somehow establish a system of checks and balances within the overall system of free market economy for the purpose of controlling resentment?

EG – I think that it has been shown that socialism as a system—in contrast with “social democracy”—does not really exist, that its alternative status to “capitalism” was a sham. This does not of course preclude the success of the experiments in mixed economy that we see in countries like China or Singapore. But I find it hard to believe that Chinese “communism” can survive as more than a vestigial justification for the political oligarchy, or that this oligarchy itself will not evolve at some point—as I believe it is already doing—into a more democratic system.

As for being a “believer” in the market, I believe that all social forms are best understood as modes of exchange, and that the best form is the one that generates the greatest number of degrees of freedom. The lesson of the past century is that, like it or not, there is no real alternative to the market system because no other conceivable social order can be “wiser” in allowing for a greater contribution of the members of the society to its decision-making process. The market is an agency whose outputs all can influence but no one can forestall or dominate. Any system that purports to improve life by repressing the market must involve confiscatory economic policies backed by a tyrannical political structure, and such policies cannot succeed even in the economic domain. This does not mean we should leave all decisions to the market. In the liberal-democratic polity, a political exchange-system oversees and regulates the economic system; mature market economies provide, among other things, a “safety net” for people unable to compete in the marketplace.

In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper defined, as opposed to Totalitarianism, a vision of society—the “Open Society”—according to which truth (certainly in a relative sense) is not the monopoly of anyone. Thus the variety of individual views and interests necessitates the creation of institutions, the role of which is to secure peaceful coexistence among individuals through the safeguard of the rights of citizens and guaranteeing freedom of choice and expression.

What is striking in this respect is that the Western “open” societies did not promote the open society paradigm in the countries of the fallen Soviet empire after the end of the Cold War, but, on the contrary, left these wretched people to deal alone with their internal (survival) problems. Nothing like the Marshall Plan was conceived of to raise them from their torpor, and thus a historic opportunity for “integration” was lost.

The whole world today has fallen under the spell of the marketplace. Liberal capitalism nearly advocates that nothing is better, for the general welfare, than the feverish pursuit of personal interest. The let do policies, strongly emphasizing individualism, are threatening to destroy the very foundations of the open society, and with it the whole modern civilization. – Dimitri A.

As for Affirmative Action and social policy in general, I would state my position on two levels: a general one of political theory, and a more personal one of political preference. On the general level, I would say that the debate on Affirmative Action as it has taken place in the US, despite all the hypocrisy and self-serving claims of victimage—notably on the part of privileged white women who have been by far the most successful beneficiaries of these policies—is nevertheless exemplary of the messy yet, no doubt, maximally fair way such things are decided in a democracy. On this level, I think it is a fine thing that we have both a Left and a Right, Democrats as well as Republicans, supporters and opponents of Affirmative Action.


On the level of personal political opinion, while I can understand that long years of discrimination call out for some remedy, I believe that any policy favoring one social group over another is best implemented indirectly. Racial quotas enforced by means of differential admission criteria (such that a Black or Hispanic with score X is admitted and a White or Asian rejected) may have positive effects, but they are ultimately demeaning to the groups they are intended to serve. I observed more racial tension on campus during the Affirmative Action era than there had been twenty years earlier. As an example of “good” affirmative action, I would cite a recent initiative of the University of California to sponsor high-school graduates normally not admittable as first-year students for two years at community (two-year) colleges, with the assurance that, if they perform satisfactorily, they will be admitted to the University in their third year. This allows the University to monitor and encourage the education of “minority” students without selecting them at the expense of others. Unfortunately, implementation of this policy has been postponed for budgetary reasons.


AA – To go back to a point you made above, can we understand from your response that language (as the linguistic sign or the act of representation), and with it the whole of human culture, emerged as a result of an act, namely: “the aborted gesture of appropriation,” that sought to counter-balance the tendency to engage in appropriation at any cost and, thus, to help ensure the survival of the group? In other words, wouldn’t language itself here appear as some sort of an affirmative action program meant to contain resentment and thus defer the violence that could result from a “mindless” continuation of mimetic appropriation?

EG – Yes, language bears with it an implicit moral model of reciprocal exchange that we all share. Animal societies are governed by pecking-order hierarchies; the originary scene of human language begins with a universal renunciation of the central object that becomes sacred to everyone, including the “alpha animal.” Primitive hunter-gatherer human societies are egalitarian; the sacred stands above any individual, and all are equal with respect to the fundamental configuration of the scene of representation. Human inequality only emerges from this originary equality when wealth begins to be accumulated and the sacred center becomes a locus of redistribution that a “big man” can appropriate.

Thus I think you are right to see “affirmative action” as implicit in human language. Affirmative action is motivated by the “white guilt” that the originary reciprocity that defines the human has been violated, that others are being excluded from the social dialogue. The whole postwar era has been dominated by the confrontation of the resentment of the excluded with the guilt aroused by their exclusion.

AA – You hinted, in one of your early Chronicles, at the demise of liberalism; does that make you a conservative from the point of view of American politics?

EG – My critique of socialism is not that it’s inferior to “capitalism” but that the concept itself has no coherent meaning. I am almost tempted to say the same thing about what Americans call “liberalism.” (As I’m sure you know, in France a “liberal” is someone Americans would call a neo-conservative, even a libertarian, someone who “believes” in the market.) The word has almost entirely disappeared from our national political vocabulary. I recall Michael Dukakis’ embarrassment in 1988 at being asked if he considered himself a liberal; I doubt if Al Gore ever used the word in the last presidential campaign. To the extent that this term has become associated with a particular moment in post-war American politics, that of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” when it was believed that we could eradicate poverty and related ills simply by handing out money to the poor through the welfare system, liberalism died with the adoption of welfare reform a few years ago.


But, as I said in answer to the previous question, on the level of political theory, although there need not be communists in a democratic society, there must be liberals, relatively speaking. There must be a debate about what kind of safety net is necessary, about how to balance productive efficiency with the concerns of the consuming public, including long-term concerns such as the environment. The American electorate has never been inclined to close off the liberal-conservative debate, even if its terms must occasionally change. As a result of one such change, we may consider post-war liberalism to be dead, but now there are “neo-liberals” to carry on.

In the Chronicle you allude to, I was implicitly referring to academic liberalism, which corresponds roughly to the ideology of a European “Green” party. My point was that today’s liberals condemn all existing social forms in the name of equality, yet deny that their resentment of inequality, which extends vicariously to animals and even to plants and rocks, is the product of a uniquely human experience—one for which the originary hypothesis offers a generative model. This denial leads to unfortunate concepts like “animal rights.” We punish those who abuse animals, just as we punish someone who despoils a monument. Does this mean the monument has “rights”?

As I believe I also said in that Chronicle, in the current vocabulary of American politics, I am rather a neo-conservative than a conservative. A conservative is less someone who thinks he should put his faith in the dynamic of the exchange-system than someone who puts his faith in God, or, in any case, in “tradition.” I find this “paleo-conservatism” incompatible with, or at least, uncongenial to, GA’s minimalistic presuppositions about the human.

AA – How would you appraise someone like Noam Chomsky and his “neo-Anarchist” colleagues?

EG – What little I know about Chomsky’s politics gives me no desire to know more. Chomsky is very nearly a Holocaust denier; he burns with resentment for every victimage in the world but that of his own people. His political writings, from what I have seen of them, are litanies of accusations of immorality and greed directed against those in power, particularly in the United States. At best, such criticism can bring scandals to light; it is incompatible with any kind of political theory. “Anarchism” is just another word for a personal nihilism protected—and in cases like Chomsky’s, richly rewarded—by the very order one affects to despise. Were I an anarchist, I would feel myself obliged to reject the benefits of such an order. Diogenes lived in a barrel; I doubt if Chomsky does.

AA – From what I read of Chomsky, he seems more a revisionist than a denier. He throws some doubts on the scale of the Holocaust, and criticizes the way it was used as “a propaganda tool.” What do you have to say about this, considering that he is not the only Jewish scholar of late to raise these issues?

EG – I believe I said “very nearly” a denier. No, Chomsky doesn’t deny the Holocaust, nor (for example) the massacres of Pol Pot, but whenever one talks about the Jews who died, he complains that we have forgotten the Gypsies, and when one talks about the massacres in Cambodia, he reproaches us for forgetting those in East Timor. Here is a quote about September 11: “The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people (no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one cares to pursue it).” In other words, by deploring an atrocity against a group Chomsky dislikes (and the US, far more than the Jews, is the central object of his hatred), one is complicit through silence in what is presented as a worse atrocity—even if the ill-advised bombing of the Sudan factory was done on credible if erroneous information in response to a terrorist act (the bombing of two US embassies), and deliberately staged at night in order to avoid killing “unknown numbers of people.” I fully agree with David Horowitz’ assessment in “The Sick Mind of Noam Chomsky” (www.salon.com; September 26, 2001) that Chomsky is “a pathological ayatollah of anti-American hate.”

Here is a less polemical quote, from Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “On Faurisson and Chomsky” in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press, 1992): “To be sure, it is not the case that Chomsky’s theses in any way approximate those of the neo-Nazis. But why does he find so much energy and even tenderness in defending those who have become the publishers and defenders of the neo-Nazis, and so much rage against those who allow themselves to fight them? That is the simple question I shall raise. When logic has no other end than self-defense, it goes mad.”

AA – As for Anarchists, yes, you’re quite right, they are indeed using the very “system” they criticize. But how else are they supposed to operate? Working from outside the system turns them into outlaws, and perhaps even terrorists, while living in barrels will only serve to marginalize them and undermine their ability to communicate their ideas.


EG – My reference to barrels was facetious. But if “anarchists” like Chomsky are not only tolerated but lionized by the academic world and the intellectual community in the United States and Europe, that strikes me as a demonstration that they are in no way dangerous to the system, but serve as outlets for resentment, somewhat like stand-up comedians. It’s a familiar aspect of the market system since the Romantic era that those who stridently oppose the bourgeoisie are very much a part of it. My real criticism of “anarchists” is not that they don’t live in barrels, but that they propose no alternative to the system that shelters them. Rather than lonely voices of sanity, they are simply part of the background noise of the market system. The recent protests at WTO meetings and the “peace rallies” after the recent events transmit no positive political views. Marxism may be fundamentally flawed, but it is a coherent political philosophy. “Anarchism” is not—unless you are referring (and I don’t think you are) to libertarians à la Ayn Rand, who are at the antipodes of Chomsky, and whose views I find almost as irrelevant.

This argument saying that people like Chomsky “are in no way dangerous to the system, but serve as outlets for resentment” seems to me a little bit more like a “communist” argument. An argument that was used in good old times by Communists against their Social Democrat opponents. In fact, one of the best characteristics of Western Democracy, which is (unfortunately) the only one valid up till now, is to be an “outlet for resentment”!

Anyway, if any system is to fall, it is not because of or by people like us, Mr. Chomsky or Mr. Gans. It falls for much deeper reasons; like for example, loosing its basic moral values or its “raison d’être.” And it seems to me that this is actually the case in our world led by Western civilization. Humanity never lived in a more amoral (and immoral) environment. Basing on that state of things, Humanity may end itself. And History will reach its end with the end of Humanity. We are maybe close to that. Here, I hope that I am wrong… – Akram A.

AA – GA, in many ways, is based on the works of French anthropologist René Girard, but the latter has proven too Christian for the tastes of many of his colleagues, including perhaps you. Still, one has to ask, how Christian is GA, if it is Christian at all?

EG – Abstracting from the question of belief, one can consider Christianity, at least as Girard presents it, as an anthropology. This is the substance of Girard’s most recent book, which is, not coincidentally, perhaps the one most impregnated with Christian vocabulary: Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair. Girard’s conception of Christianity is that it alone fully reveals the “scapegoat mechanism” that is the principle of all earlier, sacrificial, religions and that remains present in “sacrificial Christianity” that fails to adhere to the implications of its founding revelation.

I have no difficulty with the notion that, in comparison with other religions, Christianity has a firmer grasp of the ideal of reciprocal morality and is consequently sharper in its critique of sacrificial practices. But the difference between a religion and a minimal anthropology is nowhere made clearer: Christianity can only commemorate the historical locus of its founding revelation by attributing to the source of this revelation a unique sacred status. However ingeniously we “anthropologize” this attribution—by generalizing it to all human beings, by finding parallels to the Trinity in the individual mind, by demonstrating the identity between the victim of sacrifice and the divinity of sacrifice—it remains bound to a particular historical experience and a particular person, and is consequently not fully generalizable. Christianity is a “universal” religion, but no religion can become the global religion. This is a translation into religious terms of my remarks about Western civilization above.

Hence, despite my admiration for Christianity, I do not consider GA a Christian way of thinking. I would go further; I don’t consider Girard’s anthropology “Christian” either. His steadfast affirmation that all his ideas are already present in the New Testament is something he no doubt believes, and it is certainly more reassuring—and less resentment-generating—than the claim to have discovered it all himself, but it is no truer than if I were to claim that all the ideas of Generative Anthropology were already present in the originary scene. They are all derived from it, and filiations can be traced, but they could not have been made explicit at the time, any more than the authors of the Gospels could have formulated the theory of mimetic desire, let alone the originary hypothesis. I see this making-explicit as a continuing process that began with the first sign and continues throughout history. For Girard—and he is not without self-contradiction on this point—all “sacrificial” religions disguise the truth, and Christianity, partially anticipated by Hebrew religion, reveals it. All is then revealed, but the revelation must be renewed, and that is Girard’s function. I don’t think this is the appropriate way to understand human history. All history is revelation, not just one being’s miraculous appearance.

AA – You have stated quite clearly in many of your writings that GA is meant to replace religion as a way of thought with regard to human origins. Can you clarify that more? Can you clarify more the relationship (potential, real) between GA and religion?

EG – It would be utopian, not to say megalomaniacal, to claim that GA or any other way of thinking could replace religion. To use an oxymoron, which is a genuine paradox, GA may be considered a minimal religion—provided we take into account that religion is not a minimalist form of representation. In effect, what we do when we “minimalize” religion into GA is reduce the institutional sacred to its minimal form, which is language. For example, the minimal core of God’s immortality is the immortality of the sign, whose relation to its meaning does not live and die in worldly time. In minimal terms, God is the subsistent center of the scene of representation, that is, the Being that by “eternally” guaranteeing the meaning of the sign as langue permits our communicative use of it in parole. In the same vein, the individual soul’s immortality is that of its possessor’s “story.” In Homer’s day, the poet who told your story was considered to have made you immortal. Proust’s great novel about recovering “lost time” is meant to serve a similar function.

But I have no illusion that this kind of reduction can replace religion. I would define the “religious experience” as precisely the feeling that one can extrapolate from the mere formal persistence of meaning to a force that impinges on the world. And the essential function of this force is to preserve us from violence. There are “no atheists in the foxholes” because, in times of danger, we rely on God to defer violence in the same way as the representation of the sacred deferred violence in the originary scene.


I have every sympathy with those who pray to God as the ultimate interlocutor in moments of crisis. If there is a minimal God who guarantees the permanence of language and of the scene on which it appears, then who can know the limits of this guaranteeing Being’s capacity to defer violence? But, by a paradox characteristic of representation in general, once you have defined God in this way, you cannot “believe” in his power beyond that of the representations that he is said to guarantee. God is always conceived as prior to and independent of our representations of him. Minimally, God is coeval with humanity; as an object of knowledge, he is unknown before the emergence of human representation. Yet this representation could not have come into being had it not designated a presence prior to its emergence. The sacred is not something I invent; I can only discover it. Yet it had never manifested itself before that moment. To the extent that one can bound one’s spiritual life by the understanding of this paradox, and only to that extent, one can substitute GA for religion.

Is God really unknown before the invention of human representation? In his famous fictionalized essay Hayy Bin Yaqzan [“Living Son of Awake”], the well-known Muslim Philosopher Ibn Tufayl, pursuing an argument made by previous Muslim Philosophers, hypothesized the birth (out of clay) of a man on a desolate island. Through the use of observations and internal reflection and dialogue, Hayy managed to “discover” the existence of God. In other words, God’s existence in this case relied on an act of reflexive consciousness, rather than an act of representation. The role of representation, then, is to make the existence of God known in a social communal sense, not in an individual sense. But then, GA seems to deal with communities rather than individuals; so such an observation should not pose a problem for it really. Still, one can wonder whether there exists a system of internal representation in the process of ongoing internal dialogues. What sort of influence could the existence of such individual systems exert on the emergence of communal representational systems with which GA seems to deal? – AA

AA – Is Jesus, from the point of view of GA, and regardless of sacrality considerations, a figure of love or resentment? Or did he make a transition from one to the other as his “mission” proceeded?

EG – The “historical Jesus” being pretty much a chimera, we have only the Jesus of the Gospels, who is presented as free from all resentment. When Jesus gets angry, which is pretty often, this is not resentment but a lesson to us not to tolerate evil. (Those who think it is Christian to blame ourselves for the recent terrorism should reread these passages.) Nor is there anything in the Gospels that supports the idea of a spiritual “transition” on Jesus’ part, except perhaps from optimism to pessimism concerning the reception of his mission. We may of course speculate that the “historical Jesus” was a Jewish patriot or “zealot,” as one theory has it. If we compare Jesus with predecessors like the Maccabees, one can see a progression from resentment to love, from violence to the renunciation of violence—but also from political effectiveness to political quietism. It’s a good story, maybe a plausible one; it’s just not the one told in the Gospels.

This is not to say that formulas like “the last will be the first” do not presuppose resentment. But the resentment is deferred beyond death; we are asked to renounce acting on it. And it is never presented as Jesus’ resentment.

AA – What about a figure such as Muhammad; do you know enough about his life and career to formulate an opinion from the point of view of GA?

EG – My picture of Muhammad is fragmentary, to say the least. I think of him as a latecomer to the monotheistic tradition who founds a religion for its outsiders. Whereas the Hebrews of Exodus leave the world of the archaic empires, Islam attracts those who are left out of early Christian (and Jewish) civilization. Its enormous presence today in the so-called third world reflects this vocation.

Christianity conquered the empire from within; Islam attacks it from without. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was a warrior as well as a prophet. Where Jesus, in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, denounced worldly power, all the better to obtain it, Nietzsche might say, Muhammad sought such power. This does not make one “better” than the other, but it leads to important differences in the social orders associated with the two religions. However absolute the power of Christian monarchs, there was always a distinction between the private world of reciprocal morality, which evolves into what comes to be called “civil society” and eventually into the market system, and the institutions of central political power. In Islam, where the prophet is both conqueror and law-giver, there is no such distinction. This makes the relationship of Islamic countries with the global market-system, and with democratic politics, particularly problematic. Islam has often, I think unfortunately, been a means of resisting the embourgeoisement without which civil society and democracy cannot flourish.

The “religious” views of Mr. Gans seem to me too materialistic. With regard to Christianity, when he raises the question of the historic figure of Jesus, or with regard to Islam, when he considers Muhammad as only a conqueror, or even when he speaks about the God we “invent”. Such views that lack spirituality and prevail nowadays among the adepts the three semitic religions, are, from my point of view, one of the main reasons why we are facing these problems now, e.g., the problem of fundamentalism (Islamic, Christian and Jewish) and what he calls embourgeoisement, which is, in fact, the result of this materialistic view of things from one side, and selfishness from the other side. – Akram A.

AA – What would you say about the use of victimary rhetoric in East-West relations?

EG – I assume that by “East-West” you are referring to the relations between industrialized nations and those less developed, most of which were formerly either colonies or political dependencies of the “West.” I would say grosso modo that rhetoric, any rhetoric, is useful as long as it allows new participants to enter the dialogue, but that it becomes harmful when these new participants continue to use it and thereby shut off dialogue. Like stock market booms, inflationary periods of victimary rhetoric tend to last a little too long. In the post-colonial world, the persistence of the persecutor-victim model has greatly delayed the integration of many economies into the world market system. Compare South Korea with Zimbabwe or Algeria. Victimary rhetoric incites resentment to express itself as violence rather than recycling it into the exchange-system.

I read an interview the other day with a Pakistani admirer of Bin Laden. When asked why he hates the United States, he cited, among other things, the bombing of Iraq. For this man, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, not to speak of the violence its government has wreaked on its own citizens, is discounted as secondary conflict within his world, as opposed to the violence of the external persecutor-victim relation. Thus in the Gulf War, rather than defending Kuwait—and Saudi Arabia—we were persecuting Iraq.

If Muslim fundamentalists are using victimary rhetoric, they have most probably learned it from their “half-brothers”! – Akram A.


AA – How about the use of victimary rhetoric in the Arab-Israeli struggle? What sorts of light can GA shed on this whole issue, in your opinion?

EG – This is, as you know, the touchiest of issues. As a Jewish American whose son was brought up in Israel, I cannot claim neutrality. Jews are no strangers to victimary rhetoric. In my view, the postwar/postmodern era that saw the end of colonialism and racial discrimination in the USA and even South Africa, as well as the enforcement of the rights of women, religious minorities, the handicapped, homosexuals, and so on, begins with the Holocaust and the legitimacy it granted to victimary rhetoric. Here was a case where there was no need to “see both sides”: the Nazis were persecutors and the Jews were victims. This model could then be applied to all other overtly unequal relationships.

This being said, what strikes me most in the rhetoric of both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict is that, whereas many Israelis, at least until recently, have openly sympathized with the Palestinians and considered their grievances legitimate or at any rate understandable, I have never heard from any Palestinian spokesman any sign of similar sympathy for the Israelis. When Sadat came to Jerusalem, there was truly a moment of mutual sympathy that led to a durable peace treaty—and, unfortunately, to Sadat’s assassination. I doubt that Arafat is capable of such a gesture, either personally or politically. The Palestinians present themselves as victims of absolute injustice. If they kill Israelis, however brutally or arbitrarily, they are simply responding to persecution. But if Israeli soldiers kill a Palestinian even when they are being shot at, they are persecutors and the Palestinians are victims, martyrs. Here you have a clear case where victimary rhetoric prevents dialogue: if Israel is by its mere existence a persecutor and the Palestinian community its victim, no conversation is possible. Many people had hoped that the Oslo peace process would lead beyond this mindset, but the new Intifada proved them wrong. I think that even now a good deal of the distrust on the Israeli side would be dissipated rather quickly if the Palestinians showed some signs of reciprocity.

Conversely, from what I understand, the great flaw in Barak’s approach was that, however generous his concessions, he never treated the Palestinian negotiators as equal partners in dialogue, thereby confirming their victimary apprehensions. I hope that, despite the scenes of hateful celebration, the recent events will lead both sides to welcome the resumption of negotiations, as seems, very tentatively, to be occurring.

Although we cannot, from our side either, claim neutrality, specially now with Tsahal re-invading the territories of the Palestinian Authority, we cannot but recognize that, in a certain sense, Mr. Gans is indeed right. There is almost no sign of sympathy from the Arab part neither with the Israeli Jews in general, nor with those of them who sympathize with Arabs in particular. We strongly believe we need to reevaluate our position in this regard. – Akram A.


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