Most conservative publications use the term “postmodern,” often in association with “deconstruction,” as if it belonged wholly to the Left. In this perspective, the postmodern is less an objective historical period-concept than an ideology disguised as one, less a time than an ideological space in which all values are relative and all cultural edifices are deconstructed, including that of history itself. The postmodern agenda is to eliminate from the past as from the present all objective criteria of social reward, to the benefit of those who would substitute resentment for productive ability. Difference is reduced to domination and domination to sacrifice; whatever the game, losers are victims who deserve compensation, winners are victimizers who deserve condemnation.
Although there is more than a grain of truth in this portrait of postmodern thinking, I do not accept it. I think the term “postmodern” refers to a problem rather than a solution. To recognize the specificity of this problem is to be able to separate the necessary deferral of victimary resentment from the vision of reality that this resentment proposes. Although the end of Soviet communism has convinced almost everyone of the fallaciousness of the socialist ideal, neither the Left nor the Right have yet digested its consequences for their view of history. Postmodernity may well be precisely the period marked by the “end of socialism,” by the reluctance to accept the statistical tyranny of the market as lighter and more forgiving than the most enlightened despotism that could conceivably replace it. Once the necessity of this acceptance has been fully digested, the term “postmodern” will presumably no longer be necessary. But this prediction does not come with a time limit. Perhaps market society will remain forever in mourning for the socialist illusion without which it cannot conceive its own freedom. This is something we can hardly know while we ourselves remain in this phase. At any rate, if a catastrophe occurs to take us out of it, we will know of that soon enough.
If this view of the postmodern is correct, then the truly postmodern way of thinking is not deconstruction or any of its victimary avatars but Generative Anthropology. Yet neither GA nor mimetic theory in general has been integrated into mainstream thought. What then is the situation of its discourse with respect to the general social dialogue?
Popularity is no index of truth in mathematics or the natural sciences. Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigms” may not be subject to immediate falsification a la Karl Popper, but the need to test hypotheses against real-world data allows us to be reasonably confident that over the long haul scientists will find the most effective paradigms in their various domains.
The situation is different in the social sciences, not because data cannot be obtained and hypotheses tested and falsified, but because there is no fundamental agreement as to the significance of the results. We know what questions to ask the natural world because our place in this world generally makes it clear to us what manipulations, whether practical or merely theoretical, we desire to exercise on it. Among the social sciences, the field of economics, where we can count on nearly the same degree of unanimity, is closer to the natural sciences than are sociology or anthropology, where academic tradition (the “history of the subject”) plays a predominant role.
The academic discipline of Anthropology can be counted on to ask and answer a fairly well-defined set of questions about human behavior. These are not, for the most part, the questions addressed by Generative Anthropology, whose roots lie not in the social sciences but in the Humanities, in a fuzzy critical domain known today simply as “theory” and that appears to be in the process of dissolving altogether. Historically, GA may well be the last significant attempt to understand the human on the basis of the textual perspective that defines the Humanities, and whose current decline presages the end of the Humanities’ claim to a shaping influence on the public dialogue. By subordinating the textual to the contextual, the current shift of emphasis toward cultural and intercultural studies deprives the Humanities of their raison d’être. I recall hearing many years ago a professor of European history reproach the French Department for teaching Proust, who was little known during his lifetime, rather than Romain Rolland, whose works were influential best-sellers. This old dispute between the historian and the literary critic has, generally speaking, been resolved in the historian’s favor. Today, the contemporary works studied in a (Humanities) literature department will most likely be the same as those studied in a (Social Science) area studies program; indeed, the field is likely to be represented in both programs by the same faculty member.
GA originates in reflection on the literary text reduced to the minimal dimension of the first linguistic sign. Its difference from other ways of thinking stems from its insistence on the cultural and therefore “literary” significance of this sign. Deconstruction, and post-structuralist “theory” in general, puts language at the center of all things. So does GA, except that for this child of René Girard’s deviant, extra-Parisian brand of “French theory,” language is not an independent force but a distinctively human activity.
None of today’s social sciences, anthropology and linguistics included, concern themselves with originary scenes. Empirical science requires prudent hypotheses that stick close to the data. GA insists on the “minimality” of its originary hypothesis, but minimality with respect to prior suppositions is not the same as empirical prudence. Prior to any attempt at empirical justification, the originary hypothesis affirms the absolute originality of the language-world. The first sign as the name-of-God inaugurates the new notion of significance as applied not simply to objects of great appetitive interest but to the object of an interest so great that it cannot lead to an appetitive praxis. That the sacred is accessible through representation alone is the central truth of all culture, one that leads us to spend money and time on religion, tragedy, and pornography. But the explanation of culture that derives from this truth, however evident it might seem to the readers of this Chronicle, is not that of the majority, who either prudently adhere to one of the anthropologies proposed by the social sciences or, dissatisfied with “secular humanism,” prefer one that is religion-based. Yet the latter generally suffer in inverted form from the same blindness as the former: they think the affirmation of God’s preexistence absolves us from attempting to understand how we gained access to his transcendental realm.
I have often reflected on Doug Collins’ explanation for the failure of the originary hypothesis to win general acceptance. For Doug, if I understand him accurately, postmodernism merely prolongs modernism’s strategic flight from the center. The modernist understood that in order to occupy the center in reality he had to renounce any claim of charismatic attraction, presenting himself in advance as unworthy in a mode Collins calls “prehumiliation.” GA’s own prehumiliation is the “little bang” of its minimal hypothesis; but minimization of the positive attraction of the center is not its (strategic) denial.
That I am a dix-neuviémiste rather than a vingtiémiste reflects my distaste for high modernism’s snobbish disdain for the “bourgeois,” marked not coincidentally by a certain antisemitism (Eliot, Pound). (We should note that the truly great modernists, Proust, Joyce, and Kafka, were equally obsessed by the “Jewish question.”) Thus I prefer to see postmodernism, with its roots in the Holocaust, not as a prolongation of modernism but as its repudiation, not as a strategic avoidance of the center but as a demystification of it in the service of decentralized dialogue. Thus far, no doubt, postmodern thought has followed Collins’s definition rather than mine; GA is reproached with arrogantly imposing its own centrality at a time when the proper thing for Western thought to do is to accept a (falsely) humble role on the periphery. The alternative is the less hypocritical institutionalized modesty of the social sciences, where the question of significance that defines the study of cultural texts has been excluded in advance.
It is as though (tout se passe comme si, to borrow the formula of poststructuralist irresponsibility) in taking the first human word, however minimally, as not merely signifying but significant, the “little bang” hypothesis goes beyond the bounds of logical thought to appeal to our esthetic judgment. The attribution of significance to an event, however minimal, necessarily involves esthetic participation; we must imagine ourselves as part of the event, sharing the desires of its participants.
For Kant, esthetic pleasure is “disinterested” and the judgment of beauty it provokes is universal. Two centuries of cultural experience permit us to refine these assertions. The Platonic idea of the “Good” is such that its very existence as a universal concept demonstrates its non-conflictual nature. Apostles of selfishness such as Callicles (Gorgias) or Thrasymachus (Republic) are refuted as simply illogical: it can never be in my interest to do what is not Good, even if I seem to benefit from it. (See “Plato and The Birth of Conceptual Thought.”) The “disinterested” concept of the Beautiful takes over where the Good leaves off. In the ethical realm, Kant does not argue that to follow the “categorical imperative” is to act in my own interest, but simply that human reason requires it; in contrast, to experience beauty is to find non-conflictive pleasure in a universal value–because, I would add, the enjoyment is mediated through representation.
In the Renaissance, Hobbes and others demystified the Platonic Idea of the Good with its a priori assumption of the harmony between individual and collective interests. The model of the “social contract” explains my abandonment of my personal desires for the common good in terms of my own self-interest. Today, I would submit, we can deconstruct the Kantian concept of beauty in an analogous way. My identification with the imaginary desiring subject of the artwork is no more automatic than my concurrence in the universal Good; I relinquish my own subjectivity only through an “esthetic contract” under which I receive the catharsis or purgation effected by the work.
Once the originary hypothesis is considered, however minimally, as the potential object of such a contract, it becomes easy to explain its lack of wide acceptance. Its very minimality makes it incapable of competing esthetically with either the historical particularity of religious discourse or the textual mystique of deconstruction, yet it nonetheless requires a contract of participation that the hypotheses of positive social science do not. The logically valid argument that to refuse a minimal hypothesis implies the acceptance of a far more content-rich set of empirical “facts” about human language, religion, and ethics is irrelevant in this context because, precisely, implicit acceptance is not a “contract.”
What then might lead to a broader acceptance of originary thinking? I can think of only one answer: the partial verification by positive science of the esthetic intuition it expresses. My enthusiasm for Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (see Chronicle 168) reflects its adoption of a scenario for language origin tantalizingly close to that of the originary hypothesis. Another quantum leap of this kind would not only make the hypothesis more acceptable, it might stimulate a real dialogue between GA and neuroscience that would be beneficial to both parties.