Recently Richard van Oort (who needs no introduction to readers of these Chronicles) expressed some concern with what I shall call in DeManian terms the “resistance to GA.” Why aren’t students of culture convinced of the necessity of an originary hypothesis? Why do they choose the inelegance of cultural empiricism over the minimalism of originary thinking? Even independently of scenes of origin, why is the mimetic theory of desire not preferred to the mythical mishmash of Freudian doctrine with its Lacanian and feminist overlays?
The simplest answer is that the problem is essentially political: the intellectuals who study culture, if only to justify their status as intellectuals, are suspicious of any theory that appears to validate the hierarchical reality of the social order by deriving it from originary necessity. Hence they prefer to consider the ideal of reciprocal morality as an unexplained transcendental imperative against which all societies come up short rather than a model guaranteed by our originary use of language. As a result, they see history as moving toward an eschatological horizon defined by the establishment of a static egalitarian utopia rather than an unending dynamic process of deferring conflict through representations that provide the differential basis for further conflict and for new representations.
But Richard might still wonder why we need the minimalist hypothesizing of GA in order to defend the movement of history.
If the study of culture were truly a science, the debate over GA would be conducted quite differently. If the minimalism of the originary hypothesis has not been accepted, it is not because a more parsimonious hypothesis has been found, but rather because, in the matter of fundamental anthropology, “scientific” neutrality is felt to be better served by disallowing any hypothesis at all. That each is in fact operating under his own implicit–and no doubt far from minimal–hypothesis is acceptable, since under the circumstances, he can make no attempt to impose it on others.
This de facto situation is so close to the originary hypothesis in its more recent formulations as to make their essential difference all the more apparent. The hypothesis, contrary to what many think, does not require “belief” in a particular scenario of the originary event. It affirms rather that the most parsimonious version of any given anthropology is the one that constructs such an event in such a way as to include all the elements that are essential to its vision of the human condition.
The originary hypothesis is not reducible to any given scenario or set of scenarios. What it does affirm, and what is really the bone of contention, is that an analysis of cultural phenomena implies an anthropology the foundations of which may be specified. It is this specification that is felt as restrictive. But failure to do so is not an act of “freedom.” However one proceeds in an analysis, one ends with a finished text from which an implicit anthropology or vision of the human may be inferred even if it was not thematized at the outset. As anyone who has ever written a doctoral dissertation knows, you write the introduction last, and you often discover in writing it a set of basic principles rather different from the set you started out with.
To refuse to define basic principles at all is, in effect, to impose another set–quite often, in our still-modernist era, a set that has ostensibly little to do with anthropology. GA’s problem is that it is indeed an anthropology, that it affirms that culture is made by people, “selves” if you like, whereas our cultural specialists have been deconstituting and deconstructing the Self–first the bourgeois Self, then any Self at all–for the last 150 years.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a footnote from Paul de Man himself, the ultimate master of modernist criticism whose vast learning and extraordinary intellectual finesse (and, I might add, helpfulness to his students) were undeniable, whatever one thinks of his wartime publication record. This little gem is found in “Lyrical Voice in Contemporary Theory: Riffaterre and Jauss” (in Lyric Poetry Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker, Cornell, 1985), a exemplarily enigmatic article that sheds considerable light on the master’s denunciation of ethical readings of cultural texts as illusions of “blindness” that the critic’s “insight” can discover only at the price of an unnamable “blindness” of his own. (GA does not find this paradox fearsome because it understands that culture deals with it not by endlessly going round in circles but, if one can pardon the Hegelianism, dialectically. Whether or not we eventually blow each other up, we know a bit more about ourselves than our ancestors, and we are better off putting this knowledge at the service of a constructive rather than a nihilist vision of the human.)
Rather than being a heightened version of sense experience, the erotic is a figure that makes such experience possible. We do not see what we love but we love in the hope of confirming the illusion that we are indeed seeing anything at all. (n. 14, p. 63)
De Man is speaking here not of a love affair but of a line from a poem by Victor Hugo, “j’aime le carillon” [I love/like the carillon]–whence his reference to the erotic as a “figure.” Yet his text refers to the erotic in general; that is, it expresses an implicit anthropology.
The first sentence that calls the erotic a figure asserts a generality not incompatible with originary anthropology: the erotic is “figural” in de Man’s vocabulary in the sense that it depends on representation, and therefore on the paradoxical interaction between representation and what it represents. To write “I love the carillon” is not to make the imaginary carillon more vivid (“heightened version of sense experience”), but to provoke in us the “transcendental” imagination that there “is” indeed a carillon rather than the mere signifier on the page.
But the second sentence, whatever the author’s intention, goes beyond the realm of writing. “We do not see what we love” because love and seeing are on two different planes: we see materially but love transcendentally, that is, love is mediated through signs. “Seeing anything at all” is an “illusion” because “anything” in this context belongs to the sign-world rather than the real world. “To see anything” in this sense means to have an experience of meaning, and for de Man, the conjuction of experience and meaning can only be illusion–the literary text simply makes the illusion convincing.
All these categories cry out for a generative explanation. Why? Because only thus can they be left in their DeManian paradoxicality while being understood at the same time in their human reality. No, we cannot have love without signs, but why do we have signs in the first place? How can it be said, without contradicting de Man’s essential point, that God is Love? The transcendental realm of the sign is not, cannot be, simply independent of the human, as de Man and, in the last analysis, all modernists think; but it is not, as humanists like to imagine, simply human either. The sign is both of us and beyond us. But this is a sterile paradox unless it is given meaning within our fundamental anthropology–unless, in a word, the transcendental can be shown to emerge from worldly immanence precisely in the locus, in the “moment,” of the human. Which is the very content of the originary hypothesis.
I’m not sure how many deconstructionists the above argument would persuade, not to speak of their successors, the multiculturalists who would find its very sophistication a sign of Eurocentric bias. But I hope, at least, that I have persuaded Richard van Oort. If I can’t convince Richard of the intellectual validity of GA, then I’m really in trouble!