The other day a graduate student I consider intelligent referred to himself as a locus traversed by a set of discourses; or rather, it was not “himself” but “his self” to which he so referred. In more Girardian terms, he might have referred to himself as the locus of a set of mimetic desires, yet the reference would be no mere expression of mimetic desire, even if it were imitated from Girard himself. The self who speaks of himself as a set of discourses enunciates a meta-discourse not included within the set, even if that meta-discourse itself merely repeats the doxa of the day.
The nature of the subject of consciousness is the central question of modern philosophy, the transition to which was inaugurated with Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum. The key gesture of the “linguistic turn” in postmodern thought is the equation of the subject of consciousness with the subject of discourse, “s/he who says ‘I.'” This equation is a great step forward in the anthropological conquest of the metaphysical domain; unfortunately it is also a great half-step backward into linguistic fetishism. Yes, language is central to the human, and the reformulation in linguistic terms of the ostensibly diverse forms of transcendence, from the “afterlife” to the esthetic to the charisma of celebrity, is an indispensable precondition of any generative anthropology. But this reformulation is possible only if language itself is understood within the context of human mimetic interaction.
Fetishizing language as a function independent of such interaction, for example as a “tool for knowing the natural world,” gives us instrumentalist analyses of human thought that deny the paradoxical generation of the transcendental realm–that is, precisely what uniquely characterizes humanity. This is a social-science deformation, pedestrian but “objectively” reasonable. As my student’s remark suggests, more common in the humanities is the opposite attitude, based on a tendentious reading of Thomas Kuhn’s conceptualization of science: that discourses are examples of “paradigms” independent of instrumental reality but arbitrarily giving meaning to it, paradigms of whose origin it is useless to speak since there is no master paradigm that can provide a perspective on it. GA rejects this dogmatic idealism; the originary hypothesis is not indeed a “master paradigm” but a minimal kernel of human interaction from which we may hypothesize the paradigms of language to have originated.
To identify the subject of human consciousness with the subject of human language is no small accomplishment, but the subject who says “I” cannot be reduced to this formal feature alone. To be able to use language is to belong to a species that meets a set of minimal preconditions which the originary hypothesis attempts to formulate. The self that is able to define itself as a locus traversed by discourses has demonstrated its ability, even if itself mimetically inspired, to examine critically its dependence on these discourses at the very moment in which it is mimetically drawn to them.
The model of the subject I grew up with was just the reverse of the passive discourse-traversed “locus” of the nineties. To the intelligentsia of the fifties and sixties, Sartrean existentialism supplied the dominant model of the human subject, defined by its absolute freedom. Perhaps because no one could fully live up to the existentialist model any more than to the Christian one, it was perceived by the generation who had survived World War II as morally true; the politicization of its ethical implications, leading to Sartre’s decline into infantile leftism, was still in the future.
Although I never thought of myself as an existentialist, the idea that the human subject is defined by its freedom has never left me. (This was pointed out to me by José Corti when he published my book on Musset’s theater back in 1974.) But GA’s articulation of the notion of freedom is less metaphysical than Sartre’s néant [nothingness]. The human subject is free to the extent that he is free to formulate his intention in language–at a negligible cost in worldly energy. Being free to speak is not the same as being free to act; but freedom of speech is the minimal freedom we can verify in our minds at any time, and freedom of action may always be understood as the translation of a linguistically formulated intention. In saying “I’ll refuse to talk when I’m tortured by the Gestapo,” I freely intend a course of action, even if when the time comes I find myself unable to carry it out. For when I decide to talk under torture (assuming that this is not the result of some involuntary drug-induced state), I am aware of making a decision–and therefore of bearing the guilt for this decision–to deviate from my previous statement. I need not keep my promises, but the freedom of the subject is conceivable only on the basis of the freedom to make promises, that is, to express in language what I claim my actions will be.
Thus Sartre’s idea of freedom as the defining feature of the human subject depends on its use of language, our obsession with which two generations later, curiously enough, has led my student to speak of his “self” as the unfree locus of others’ discourses. The latter statement indeed tells a truth about language: that its mimesis of the world qua representation is subordinate to its participatory status in mimetic interaction among humans. A graduate student confronted with the difficulty of finding his own “voice,” of saying something original, easily becomes aware of the dependence of his discourse on the predecessors to which it seeks to respond. The awareness of mimesis is the beginning of wisdom; and the need for originality adds a complication to existentialism’s moral ontology. When I choose “freely” to enunciate a discourse wholly derivative of another, I can claim it as my own decision but not as my own creation. The ethic of the modern world is not simply one of freedom, but of creativity, and in particular, of creativity in discourse. If I can say nothing new, then I cannot function authentically in the academic profession, which requires the “production of knowledge.”
Nevertheless, Sartre’s ontology is a better foundation for our anthropology than the student’s more fashionable one. The mimetic dependency of our language on the language of others is not our primary relation to language. Human language is, on the contrary, a solution to the potential violence of the rivalries aroused by simple mimesis. What is new in human language is precisely that it mediates our mimetic relationship to our fellows by a neomimetic relationship to a central Being, deferring the rivalry of the gesture of appropriation by means of the universally repeatable sign.
Even when the child learns language by pointing at objects in his environment, he is not simply repeating passively the words he hears: he is performing a free act of ostension that recalls the originary act of language. Although to point to and name an object is an act that can be original only once, each repetition repeats the act’s originarity. We do not “associate” the word with the object but choose to utter it, no longer as an “instinctive” gesture of appropriation mimetically reinforced by our fellows, but as a free act of representation.
My student could not have defined himself as a mere locus of discourses without the freedom of the Sartrean néant, which figures our separation as consciousness from what we do as material beings. But the metaphoric néant fails to make explicit that this separation is and can only be actualized in language. My self-consciousness is always really or potentially realized in language, just as it is through language alone that my student can complain that he is but a passive victim of language.
Even to represent our unfreedom is a free act. But the anthropological reality of this freedom cannot be understood without a theory that provides a minimal hypothesis of its origin. The enunciation of our inalienable moral responsibility can only provide a convincing model of human freedom if it shows plausibly how the latter emerged from its roots in prehuman necessity. Which is, of course, the fundamental purpose of Generative Anthropology.