Notes: On the rudiments of culture III

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René Girard on the ‘anticulture we call modern’ (from Violence and the Sacred [1972]).

If the history of modern society is marked by the dissolution of differences, that clearly has something to do with the sacrificial crisis to which we have repeatedly referred. Indeed, the phrase “modern world” seems almost like a synonym for “sacrificial crisis.” It should be noted, however, that the modern world manages to retain its balance, precarious though it may be; and the methods it employs to do so, though extreme, are not so extreme as to destroy the fabric of the society’. As my previous chapters indicated, primitive societies are unable to withstand such pressures; violence would quickly get out of hand and trigger the mechanism of generative unanimity, thus restoring a social system based on multiple and sharply pronounced differences. In the modern Western world nothing of this kind takes place. The wearing away of differences proceeds at a slow but steady pace, and the results are absorbed more or less gracefully by a community that is slowly but steadily coming to encompass the entire globe.

It is not law, in any conceivable form, that is responsible for the Freud and the Oedipus Complex tensions and alienation besetting modern man; rather, it is the increasing lack of law. The perpetual denunciation of the law arises from a typically modern sense of resentment—a feedback of desire that purports to be directed against the law but one that is actually aimed at the model-obstacle whose dominant position the subject stubbornly refuses to acknowledge. The more frenzied the mimetic process becomes, caught up in the confusion of constantly changing forms, the more unwilling men are to recognize that they have made an obstacle of the model and a model of the obstacle. Here we encounter a true “unconscious,” and one that can obviously assume many forms.

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Freud is of little use as a guide over this terrain. So, for that matter, is Nietzsche, who reserves his resentment for the “weak” while trying vainly to establish a distinction between this resentment and a truly “spontaneous” desire, a will to power that he can claim as wholly his own but that is in reality’ nothing more than the ultimate expression of cumulative resentment. No, our best guide is perhaps Kafka, one of the few to perceive that the absence of law is in fact identical with law run wild and that this identity constitutes the chief burden of mankind. Once more our best guide turns out to be one of those writers of fiction whose insights have been studiously ignored by psychological researchers. When the father is no longer an overbearing patriarch the son looks everywhere for the law—and finds no lawgiver.

If the patriarchal system, when compared to primitive systems, seems to represent a “lesser” degree of structuralization, then Western civilization since the decline of the patriarchal system can be said to have been governed by a principle of decreasing structuralization or destructralization during the whole of its historical course—a tendency that can almost be seen as an ultimate aim. A dynamic force seems to be drawing first Western society, then the rest of the world, toward a state of relative indifferentiation never before known on earth, a strange kind of nonculture or anticulture we call modern.

 

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