Some years ago, a reviewer of one of my books spoke of Generative Anthropology as a “big bang” theory of human origin. Even the motto I have chosen for GA echoes this slogan: The fox knows many things; the hedgehog, one big thing.
Although the “big bang” idea is superficially attractive, it is a formula guaranteed to backfire. Whether or not the big bang of the cosmologists is destined to remain accepted doctrine, anything self-styled “big” in human affairs is setting itself up as a target. This has been recognized at least since Herodotus’ anecdote about the king who walks through his garden lopping the heads off the flowers that show above the others.
My friend and colleague Douglas Collins of the University of Washington has always warned me against making any “big” claims. Proust, he points out, got away with writing the biggest novel in history by calling everything “small”: la petite madeleine, le petit clan (the Verdurins), la petite phrase (from Vinteuil’s sonata), le petit pan de mur jaune (in a Vermeer painting). Modern art and especially modern theory are characterized by what Collins calls pre-humiliation: in order to occupy center stage, one must first be inoculated against the resentment that the center-stage figure attracts. If, as many have noted, Hitler looks a lot like Charlie Chaplin, it is because these two most center-stage figures of the first half-century had extraordinary gifts for pre-humiliation.
All this being said, I would still not wish to disguise GA’s real character if I thought that the term “big bang” did it justice. But in truth it does not. The term reflects a misunderstanding of the originary hypothesis to which I may inadvertently have contributed, but which my recent research makes me anxious to correct.
I have often noted that GA seeks to infiltrate the central terrain between metaphysical and scientific discourse heretofore occupied solely by religion. Where the first–and the “ultimate” cultural discourse of deconstruction makes this explicit–considers the human as always already existing so that its origin can never be discussed, the second treats humans as simply another type of animal so that their origin is not worth discussing. That the opposition between the two is not eternal is brought out by the emergence of interesting new positions, some of which I have alluded to in the recent series of Chronicles on the origin of language. But it remains true that only religious thought, in its awareness of the crucial nature of human origin, has dared to propose what Wolfgang Iser would call its “staging” as an event.
It is religion, not GA, that puts forward the “big bang” theory of human origin: In the beginning the Lord created the heavens and the earth. To call the originary hypothesis a “big bang” is to invite comparisons with Genesis and with lesser “myths of origin.” GA with its “minimal hypothesis” of origin should more appropriately be characterized as the little bang theory. This term expresses GA’s similarity to and difference from religion, as well as its scientific ambitions.
In the first place, big or little, as a “bang” theory GA has an inherent sympathy for religious thought. As I pointed out in Science and Faith, even naïve creationism has a point against Darwinism in that the latter fails to account for the unique mode of humanity’s emergence. The fact that we are the only species that can theorize our own origin is not independent of the nature of this origin. Humanity can only begin with a “bang.” Hitherto, only religion has articulated this fundamental intuition; if it can now become assimilated within secular thought, religion cannot be denied the respect due its priority.
But in the second place, GA as a “little” theory is not merely in step with the tactical (read “fake”) minimalism of other modernist and postmodernist modes; it is in accord with the primary scientific rule of parsimony. Although I have been saying for a long time that GA was “minimalist,” I have not always drawn the full measure of conclusions that this status implies.
The idea of the “minimal hypothesis” is that we should seek the simplest configuration capable of generating the scenic nature of human language and culture. But the minimality of our scenario cannot be measured by the simplicity of its configuration alone. Adopting the “early” hypothesis for the origin of language–that language emerged at the time of the first divergence of Homo habilis from the Australopithecine line some two million years ago (see Chronicle 167)–forces us to minimalize not only the situation but the human potential of its participants. These are not ready-to-speak Cro-Magnons, creatures human in every way but one, but ape-men whose humanity is limited to the little bang produced by the founding event.
The point of situating all the categories of culture–desire, resentment, sacrifice, religion, morality, esthetics, exchange–as “moments” within the originary scene is to define their minimal originary relationship to the emergence of the sign, not to imply that in a single moment a group of protohumans created an entire culture. The scientific understanding of the emergence of Homo sapiens from our common ancestor with the chimpanzee is necessarily gradualistic because it seeks to explain a development that took millions of years involving bipedalism, tool-making, the libertion of female sexuality from the oestrus, and many other traits in addition to language. But now that scientists such as those mentioned in the last two Chronicles have come to recognize that human language represents a radical break with earlier primate communication systems, the little bang of the originary hypothesis becomes all the more plausible as arguably the most parsimonious way of representing this break. Language and event go hand in hand; a minimal amount of language, a minimally memorable event.
It is this memorability, minimal as it may be, that is retained by religion in ritual and its accompanying myths. To deride religious narrative in good Enlightenment fashion for transforming the little bang into a big bang is to commit a category error. If in the past decade or so scientists have begun to appreciate the radical difference between human and animal minds, brains with or without human language, this is something that religion has known all along. To be able to respect this knowledge while incorporating its minimal core into a scientific hypothesis is the contribution of originary thinking’s little bang to human science.
This contribution is minimal in another sense. It does not so much resolve as evacuate the classical problems of metaphysics with which Kant constructed his famous antinomies of pure reason–the first of which, as I recall, posed the insoluble question of the existence of an extra-worldly creator. This dismissal is perhaps still too radical for philosophy to assimilate. But from the standpoint of anthropology conceived as the foundational human science, it is a confirmation of scientific principles from within the world of humanistic discourse. If we would understand the origin not only of language but of religion and culture in general, we will have to translate our humanistic paradoxes into terms accessible to rational thought.
Generative anthropology, as the students in the GA seminar have learned, is not a quick fix that short-circuits historical specificity. On the contrary, the little bang offers only a minimal point of departure for the historical study of culture. Its most powerful effect is to imbue culture with a sense of its own evolution. However unfashionable it may be nowadays to speak of cultural forms as evolving, the general public has always known this, and the recent spate of Darwinian treatments of culture in the name of “evolutionary psychology” or “memetics,” however crudely articulated, reflect what is ultimately an optimistic need to understand our history as something other than an “eternal return” of equivalent social forms. The little bang of the originary hypothesis provides a minimal touchstone by which the evolution of social systems can be measured: the number of degrees of freedom that can be added to the system while maintaining the deferral of violence.
But to make this touchstone any more specific would be to offer a “theory of history,” the deadliest of the twentieth century’s big ideas. I shall stop, then, before this Chronicle grows any bigger, ending, not with a whimper, but with a little bang.