University of Windsor
Department of English
2-104 Chrysler Hall North
Windsor, ON N9B 3P4
In this paper, I will show how the Foucauldian reaction to the singular view of human origin leads to solipsism. This solipsism encourages “cultural studies” theorists like David McNally to seek refuge in pluralism. Though pluralism might seem to be a ready theoretical solution, McNally’s attempt at “originary thinking” is seriously inadequate when it comes to providing a plausible theory of human praxis. In order to resolve this theoretical impasse, I will turn to Gans’s “singular” version of human origin. Gans’s originary hypothesis recognizes the shortcoming of philosophical solipsism while also maintaining an exacting notion of anthropological praxis.
Michel Foucault’s interpretation of Nietzsche describes a synchronic view of origin, moving backwards in a causal fashion until we reach a “suprahistorical perspective: a history whose function is to compose the finally reduced diversity of time into a totality fully closed upon itself.”(1) The final reduction of man to his suprahistorical origin marks the goal of the “traditional historian,” according to Foucault, whereby a singular event “dissolve[s] into an ideal continuity . . . a teleological movement or a natural process.” However, Foucault (and through him, Nietzsche) is virulent in his attack on this type of historian, reminding us that “we should avoid thinking of emergence as the final term of an historical development.”(2) Instead, he lauds the efforts of the “effective historian” who “affirm[s] knowledge as perspective,”(3) insisting that this, in fact, is closer to Nietzsche’s “historical sense” which “acknowledges its [own] system of injustice.”(4) Not only is telos a stale theoretical holy grail, but so also is any overarching mediating ideal, such as justice. If we liken theorizing to war—that is, the fight against domination—then Foucault tells us that “it would be false to think that total war exhausts itself in its own contradictions and ends by renouncing violence and submitting to civil laws.”(5) Once again, an overall telos is undermined; instead a subjective view of knowledge is invoked via generation:
Where Foucault/Nietzsche’s ontology falls short, however, is in its inability to account for its own origin. Rather, the genealogist must resign himself to Entstehung, a “miraculous origin,”(11) the veracity of which can never be affirmed by perception. Such an ontology then presupposes a linear movement backwards through time, eventually suppressing the temporal for the sake of constructing a “totality fully closed upon itself.”(12) Whether any supra-ontological inquiry whose generative source is a singular, vertically integrative structure can address the origin of man beyond the referential remains to be seen. Foucault himself is skeptical. He sees the work of the genealogist as differing fundamentally from the “traditional historian” in its point of departure: “the historical sense can . . . become a privileged instrument of genealogy if it refuses the certainty of absolutes.”(13) Origin beyond the referential necessarily depends on metaphysical abstractions that can exist in the mind only.(14)
Thus, rather than a strict diachronic account of history dependent on metaphysical ideals (or a rather terrifying and finite account of origin based on genealogy), a more useful strategy might be to invoke a synchronic and pluralistic account of the human referential world that integrates with the human mind its partner in crime: the body.
David McNally, in his book, Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labour, and Liberation,(15) in fact agrees with Foucault in invoking a similar suppression of the temporal: “The emergence of cultural, language-using, toolmaking primates introduced a new order of temporality, the time of human history. This temporality does not transcend natural time, it mediates and supplements it, introducing different orders of determination.”(16) Time is not an objective ideal existing beyond the referential world; instead, its passage is necessitated by perception through “different orders of determination,” one of which includes the body. However, rather than a passive vessel, McNally recognizes “an historical body… [as] a body which generates and is shaped by systems of meaning. Meanings are not produced by disembodied and ahistorical signs . . . instead, meanings begin from the body.”(17) Where McNally differs from Foucault is in presupposing not a single abstract beginning (Entstehung) but a combination of factors integral to human origin, of both mind and body.
In seeking to include the body in his assessment of human origin, McNally necessarily incorporates biology, for to do otherwise would be to “depict culture as a leap from embodiment which introduces an ‘abyss’ between human and animals.”(18) In order to fill this abyss, McNally “push[es] social theory into contact with these ‘others,’ . . . to materialize the discussion of language.”(19) Thus he dissolves a vertical theoretical position in favour of a synchronic and pluralistic account of origin.
Because language is difficult to isolate from other higher cognitive functions that are also exclusive to humans, McNally sees no good reason to postulate language as the single fundamental characteristic separating man from ape. Rather than language creating the social (ideological) apparatus necessary for the emergence of the human mind (i.e., the evolution of the brain—what McNally calls “the organic foundation”(20)), McNally reverses the dictum to have the social, and perhaps even primitively ideological, apparatuses mediating the birth of language. Man does not suddenly spring from miraculous origins but instead emerges gradually from a community of hominids.
The evolutionary shift to bipedalism, for McNally, was the “principal form of locomotion open[ing] up new anatomical and behavioral possibilities.”(21) Among them, of course, comes a greater facility for gatherer societies to allocate food, particularly through the use of their hands. Coupled with greater mobility, human tribes could now carry “leaves, or shells full of water, seeds, fruit, and berries, children . . . small game . . . containers, sticks (as both weapons and digging tools), and stone tools”(22) over larger geographical distances. The appearance of tools marks a fundamental evolutionary advance for the species.
Eric Gans’s version of a generative anthropology, rather than looking to empirical data to verify its central claim—that humanity originated in an event—instead poses a hypothetical scene of origin, marked by the appearance of language. McNally unsurprisingly muddles the idea of any single scenic event:
Gans offers us three fundamental reasons as to why a singular scene of origin is necessary to account for the origin of language (and therefore, of man). The first is that “the scene must be collective because language, like all forms of representation, is a phenomenon of human communities rather than isolated individuals.”(31) McNally would not argue here, noting extensively the communal activities of the protohuman, including those of gathering, hunting, and the communal engagement in ritual feasts. Indeed, he quotes Richard Leakey, saying that “sharing, not hunting or gathering as such, is what made us human.”(32) Thus for both theorists, the long-term evolutionary benefits of sharing were (are) vital to the existence of the species. Nevertheless, the protohuman lacks the cognitive capacity to initiate such foresight. McNally himself concedes that sharing is “unquestionably a unique behavioral adaptation,”(33) asking “why it should have evolved”(34) at all? He answers by noting that sharing was not so much a male phenomenon as a female one. Mothers, naturally forced to care for their young over a relatively long period of infant development (in comparison to other species), would have had to initiate the division of any communal feast. Only sustained care would have been beneficial to survival, the kind first practiced by mothers towards their young. Thus McNally attributes “the biological pattern for care . . . overwhelmingly . . . [to] females.”(35)
Attributing such a phenomenon to men, however, is somewhat trickier. McNally even goes to the dubious length of invoking “some of the most overt forms of altruism.”(36) However, Gans’s second reason for postulating a hypothetical event undercuts any such altruistic behavior, recognizing that “the individual member of the proto-human collectivity is still an animal and can therefore only be moved by appetites.”(37) If sharing is indeed what makes us human (and Gans, in fact, would tend to agree(38)) then its social benefit must carry an immediate appetitive benefit rather than a long term communal one, the consideration of which still remains well beyond the cognitive limits of the protohuman.
Finally, Gans’s third reason for postulating a hypothetical event of language origin is that “the ‘arbitrary’ sign must have its source in appetitive behavior.”(39) Thus Gans’s hypothetical origin accounts for the shift from protohuman to human via appetitive desire rather than a commingling of social/economic forces. Monistic rather than pluralistic, Gans’s originary event once again redeems language as the unique and defining quality of man. Let us now look at the specific protocols of the originary event.
Gans has us imagine a community of protohumans surrounding an object of appetitive desire.(40) Thinking linearly, we can identify the community of protohumans by their propensity to engage in mimetic behavior, which McNally also recognizes as a fundamental characteristic unique to humans.
Gans’s originary event is a minimal hypothesis, making the fewest number of assumptions necessary to forward a plausible theory of origin.(48) As a hypothetical theory, it seeks no real-world verification. Its power is testament to an exacting intellection—an intuitive rather than a positive grasp over human origin. Gans’s originary hypothesis is theorizing at its most pristine, intuition at its finest. It is less a theory putting forth a mythic origin than a scenic one. The difference here is subtle but crucial. That is, if originary thinking is indeed “mythic,” then the positivist himself constructs a scene which can be defined “mythic” as well. Gans derides the existence of a “hominid,” that is—”a kind of ape in the process of becoming a man.”(49) Although the existence of such creatures may be corroborated by positive data, “they are situated within a million-year long transitional period during which the hominid remains an indefinite mediating species, near enough to man for us to understand its acts, yet far enough for this understanding to count as an explanation.”(50) Indeed, during such a period, no exact positive link can ever be established marking the shift from animal to human. We are left only with intuition, and the subsequent theories of origin that follow (McNally, et al.) cling only tenuously to existing positive data, the totality of which can never be exhausted. Each theory of origin simply waits to be refined or overturned by the next positive anthropological discovery. Originary thinking, on the other hand, does not deny the value of these discoveries, but neither does it inflate their potential value. Because “nothing must occur,”(51) during the million-year long transitional period of the hominid, a synchronic account of origin is accepted by default. “One of the most important transformations in the history of our planet, not to say the universe, occurs in a mere change of attitude that never takes place.”(52)
Generative Anthropology and Ideology
Gans’s originary event does not deny the possibility of cultural discourse (of say, Marxism), but simply removes from it any claim to ontological truth. Indeed, all discourse is a generative runoff from the originary event—the ontology of which can only be guaranteed in the human imagination. The skeptics will cry solipsism, but originary thinking is unique in that it seeks not to overcome intellectual solipsism, but only presents the most plausible theory of origin that can be articulated within it. Gans reminds us (once again undercutting the divine) that “humans would not exist as self-understanding beings if such understanding were not necessary to their existence.”(53) Origins need not be miraculous. Originary thinking is the only formal theory of representation that can account for “its own historical emergence,”(54) but as a monism, it proposes no such closure of history. Indeed, Gans nominates originary thinking as “the anthropological equivalent of Gödel’s theorem, which denies the closure of arithmetic.”(55)
Nietzsche’s Entstehung is based less on divine intervention than an increase in appetitive entropy that accommodates the previous evolutionary and common biological precept of “survival of the fittest.” The effects of worldly praxis on the study of culture do not make the practice obsolete, but requires the refocusing of intellectual energy. Because generative anthropology recognizes that “humanity is the species for which the central problem of survival is posed by the relations within the species itself rather than those with the external world,”(56) it follows that our ethical responsibilities become paramount not as a result of the ideal existence of some other-worldly morality, but rather because of the pragmatics of human survival. The first ostensive sign does not eliminate the possibility of extinction at the hands of mimesis, but merely defers it. The sign, as representative of the first aborted gesture, leads to originary resentment—that is, the human angst which necessarily follows the non-fulfilment of originary desire as opposed to appetitive satisfaction.
Certain artifices of intellection, such as Derridean deconstruction, or even the Cartesian tabula rasa, undermine generation in seeking to divorce human intellection from the anthropological truths that preceded it—simply because they lack empirical verification. Regardless, we can trust a generative framework if we believe, as Eagleton does, that “most people feel uncomfortable at the thought of belonging to a seriously unjust form of life.”(61) We can extend this dictum to include the “untrue.” Eagleton recognizes that no ideological system can last unless its citizens believe that the injustices (or, in this case, the falsities) are “en route to being amended, or that they are counterbalanced by greater benefits, or that they are inevitable or that they are not really injustices [falsities] at all.”(62)Ideology is less about empirical verification than deferral. Foucault, talking about a system of rules that guarantees domination, puts it so:
Gans differs from Foucault in that his version of human origin seeks no real-world verification. Rather than subsequently denying the veracity of generation, Gans refocuses its utility. Cultural generation is less about establishing any sort of real world ontology than of curbing originary resentment. Any cultural inquiry is fundamentally an inquiry into the nature of the sign itself. The nature of language, being both referential and generative, presupposes no real-world ideological truth. Generative anthropology is armed with the both the theoretical rigour and sensitivity to accommodate all means of inquiry by default. No all-prevailing hegemonic structure can exist. This does not reduce the credibility of generative anthropology, but merely shifts the locale in which any sort of theoretical verification can occur—from an empirical to an intuitive one. The Gordian knot, in which the strands of pluralism intertwine with those of a cultural singularity, has been slashed.
Critics like David McNally, rather than invoking a linear and diachronic view of human origin, have instead placed their faith in a synchronic and pluralistic view. While such a strategy can certainly never be disproved, neither can it ever hope to be verified. The originary event, as a minimal hypothesis, takes as its point of departure an intuitive rather than positive theoretical leap. Thus it can only be disproved should its intellectual minimalism prove incompatible with any future anthropological definition of man.(64) As it stands thus far, the reasonableness of man as distinct because of his language-using capability far outweighs the unreasonableness of such an assumption, while allowing us to state a plausible theory of origin. We need not abandon causality because of solipsism, nor are we restricted in addressing our origins because of it. Generation, as is the case with Nietzsche, need not necessarily limit us merely to a genealogical inquiry “tainted” by perception. Culture cannot be deemed ineffective simply because it fails to purport the “ontological truths” surrounding its origin. Rather, every culture is a runoff of a single, originary event, each one equally valid until its central tenets prove incompatible with human survival.
1. See Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 152.(back)
2. Foucault, 148. (back)
3. Ibid., 156. (back)
4. Ibid., 157. (back)
5. Ibid., 151. (back)
6. Ibid., 157. (back)
7. Ibid. (back)
8. Ibid., 158. (back)
9. Ibid. (back)
10. Ibid., 152. (back)
11. Ibid., 140. (back)
12. Ibid., 152.. (back)
13. Ibid.., 153. (back)
14. Foucault uses the examples of Plato’s ideals and Socrates’ notion of immortality (Foucault, 159-60). (back)
15. See David McNally, Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labour, and Liberation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001). (back)
16. McNally, 8. (back)
17. Ibid., 9. (back)
18. Ibid., 85. (back)
19. Specifically, the ‘others’ he is referring to are evolutionary biology, paleontology and anthropology; Ibid., 80. (back)
20. Ibid., 87. (back)
21. Ibid. (back)
22. Ibid., 87-88. (back)
23. Ibid., 92. (back)
24. Ibid., 88. (back)
25. Ibid., 92. (back)
26. Ibid. (back)
27. Ibid., 93. (back)
28. Ibid., 86. (back)
29. Ibid., 95. (back)
30. Gans puts it thus: “The recent offensive of ‘creation science’ against the teaching of the theory of evolution has generally been dismissed in academic circles as a side-effect of the conservative trend of the Reagan era. But although ‘creation science’ in itself is of little intellectual interest, its emergence reveals a fundamental point of conflict between science and religion that is of more than topical significance. This conflict concerns the origin and nature of man. In contrast to the embarrassing attempts of religion to muddy the waters of the natural sciences, the debate between science and religion on the subject of human origins is a true dialogue de sourds: neither side is capable of assimilating even the most fundamental contributions of the other.” See Preface to Eric Gans’s Science and Faith: An Anthropology of Revelation (Los Angeles: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1990), vii. (back)
31. His emphasis; Ibid., 3. (back)
32. Leakey quoted in McNally, 89. (back)
33. McNally, 89. (back)
34. Ibid. (back)
35. Ibid., 90. (back)
36. Ibid., 88. (back)
37. Gans, Science & Faith, 4. (back)
38. For a complete discussion on the ethical ramifications of originary thinking, see Chapter 4 of Originary Thinking entitled, “Morality and Ethics,” 45-61. (back)
39. Gans, Science & Faith, 4. (back)
40. Gans uses the example of the body of a large animal, say, a bison. See Eric Gans’ Originary Thinking (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993), 8. (back)
41. McNally, 102. (back)
42. The mimesis Gans invokes, is, in fact, a Girardian one, whereby desire does not exist in a simple dualistic fashion between sacred object and desiring subject; rather, desire is always mediated by the presence of a second subject, whose rush to the centre (i.e. sacred object) is necessarily imitated, leading to what Girard calls “the first mimetic crisis.” See René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1972). (back)
43. Gans, Originary Thinking, 8-9. (back)
44. Ibid., 8. (back)
45. Ibid. (back)
46. Ibid., 8-9. (back)
47. Ibid., 65. (back)
48. Gans states that his hypothesis “makes no claim to be definitive . . . [and is] constructed according to the primordial rule of scientific discourse that requires the minimality of the hypothesis, a rule often formulated in terms of ‘Ockham’s razor”—that mental entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” See Science & Faith, 3. (back)
49. Ibid., 8. (back)
50. Ibid., 9-10. (back)
51. Ibid., 10. (back)
52. His emphasis; Ibid. (back)
53. Gans, Originary Thinking, 1. (back)
54. Ibid., viii. (back)
55. Ibid; more thoroughly: “The lesson to be learned is that truly originary thinking does not equate its own emergence with the end of history. In the context of a worldwide exchange system creating ever more degrees of freedom, no theory can predict its own success or failure in the marketplace. Our anthropology, in affirming the ultimate necessity of the market, predicts, not its own triumph, but its own undecidablility. It is this prediction alone that is the test of its (undemonstratable) truth, the truth of a theory that denies historical closure.” (back)
56. Ibid., 2. (back)
57. His emphasis; Ibid., 18-19. (back)
58. Ibid., 87. (back)
59. See Terry Eagleton, Ideology: an Introduction (London: Verso, 1991), 26. (back)
60. Ibid., 12. (back)
61. Ibid., 27. (back)
62. Ibid. (back)
63. Foucault., 151. (back)
64. Although Gans is open to the possibility of change, he does set out the following parameter: “Originary analysis is essentially narrative; we understand a human phenomenon by attempting to tell the story of its emergence. This does not mean that all history is contained in the originary scene in a kind of universal preformation. But for any category to be considered an essential attribute of the human, it must be conceived as present at the outset, since otherwise human beings were able to exist without it. The list of these essential categories need not be fixed once and for all; but when we decide to change it, we are changing our theory of the human, our anthropology.” See Originary Thinking, 10. (back)