Claude Lévi-Strauss’ famous remark that Rousseau was the first real anthropologist is the founding text of deconstruction, in the sense that a grain of sand is the founding particle of a pearl. The core of Derrida’s grammatology is that anthropology, or human science in general, is just a new disguise for metaphysics. No doubt–but it is a metaphysics open not only to empirical data about human cultures, which Rousseau was the first major thinker seriously to integrate into his model of the human, but also to the–far more subversive–infiltration of the anthropological event into the domain of the metaphysical concept, the most visible form of which up to the present time has been not GA, but deconstruction itself.
Rousseau is one of very few who may justly be said to have initiated a new mode of consciousness. It is not enough to describe his innovation as a new way of thinking; its most original aspect is interactive, mimetic, a new way of dealing with one’s fellows in obedience to what may be called the “paranoid imperative.” Romanticism is rooted in this aspect of Rousseau, and the fact that romantic illusion can be “transcended” does not mean that modernity provides any worldly alternative to it.
Rousseau was the first person to realize that modern society’s refusal in principle of sacrificial exclusion offers its individual members an excellent basis for blackmail. Although Molière’s Misanthrope (and, already, Hamlet at Claudius’s court) preceded him in this strategy, Rousseau, operating in the real world, transformed the noble’s disdain for bourgeois reality into a democratic, universally accessible attitude. Individual resentment at real or imaginary exclusion was transformed into a social rhetoric of injustice that flourished in the romantic era and has truly come into its own in the postmodern age. It is not to disparage victims of injustice to point out that the rhetoric of injustice is not the same as its reality, that nothing resembles justified resentment more than unjustified resentment. In bourgeois society, victimary rhetoric serves to point out problems in the circulation of desire within the exchange system that as a rule are not simply reducible to injustice. The system tends to deal with such problems by increasing the circulation of goods and desires, often neglecting to resolve the “injustice” alleged as their cause.
Despite its recent disillusionment, the intellectual class remains attached to rhetorics of intellectual blackmail, condemning the market system while refusing to acknowledge that this system alone not only tolerates such condemnations but takes their substance into account. The market system looks askance at any relation that generates irrecuperable resentment. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in Totalitarianism, what is resented is not domination or inequality in itself, but domination or inequality that has lost its obvious function in maintaining the social order and has come to appear as mere privilege. It is not so much dead as dying horses that attract the most beating.
In Rousseau’s day, the French monarchy was the greatest of dying horses–it would expire a mere decade after he did. But Rousseau could not have predicted its demise, nor could he have anticipated the complicity between the market system and its critics that would make his own critique of “society” so useful in the romantic era. Rousseau’s espousal of victimary rhetoric cannot be attributed to anything so crass as political self-interest; he followed his paranoid imperative wherever it might lead. It is this act of faith that separates him from the Romantics, which is to say, from all of us who live after the French Revolution
What is the connection between Rousseau’s rhetorical blackmail and his theory of language origin? Unlike Condillac and his predecessors, Rousseau is aware of the paradox of representation, which he calls l’embarras de l’origine des langues. In contrast with the thinkers of his own time–and of ours–Rousseau is conscious that language cannot be explained as a simple prolongation of prehuman systems of communication, that it could not have emerged unless its use had become indispensable.
May I be permitted to consider for a moment the embarrassment of the origin of languages. I could content myself with quoting or repeating Abbé Condillac’s investigations on this subject, all of which fully confirm my own conceptions and may well have provided them with their point of departure. But because Condillac’s solution to the difficulties that he poses for himself concerning the origin of instituted [i.e., conventional, symbolic] signs shows that he presupposes what I put into question, that is, a kind of society already established among the inventors of language, I consider myself obliged to add my own reflections to his in order to expose these same difficulties in the light appropriate to my subject. The first difficulty that presents itself is to imagine how languages could have become necessary; for if men had no communication among themselves, nor any need to have any, one cannot conceive either the necessity or the possibility of this invention, in the event that [lit: if] it was not indispensable.
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, part I (all translations mine).
A few lines later, Rousseau refers in similar fashion to “the error of those who, in reasoning about the state of nature, bring into it ideas taken from society.” Rousseau problematizes the origin of language by questioning its epistemology: how can we explain the origin of language without attributing to the originators qualities that depend on language. This awareness of paradox, which seems banal in the age of deconstruction, makes Rousseau the originator not only of victimary rhetoric but of deconstruction itself.
The argument continues: even when we “[suppose] this first difficulty vanquished,” that is, that language could have become “indispensable,” we encounter a “new difficulty, worse even than the previous one”: that if men needed language in order to think, they must have needed thought in order to speak. These paradoxes are accompanied by fragments of a hypothesis of origin that is in turn deconstructed:
Man’s first language, the most universal, most energetic language, and the only one he needed until it became necessary [i.e., in “society”] to persuade men in assembly, is the call of nature [le cri de la nature]. . . . It was finally decided to substitute for [the call] vocal articulations which, without having the same [sc. “natural”] relation with certain ideas, are more appropriate to representing the totality of ideas as instituted signs–a substitution that could not have taken place without common consent, and in a manner rather difficult to exercise for men whose crude organs had not yet any practice, and still more difficult to conceive in itself, since this unanimous agreement [accord unanime] had to be motivated, so that speech seems to have been very necessary in order to establish the use of speech.
The first anthropologist, Rousseau didn’t miss being the first true generative anthropologist by much. All that was lacking for him to turn this self-deconstructing argument on its head was an equivalence that his own writing provides. No Rousseauian reading the expression accord unanime in the preceding passage will fail to recall the more famous passage that begins Rousseau’s final work:
Here I am, alone in the world, with no brother, neighbor, friend, or society but my own. The most sociable and loving of humans has been proscribed from society by a unanimous agreement [accord unanime].
Rousseau, Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire, I
The identity of the words suggests an identity of structure: the same unanimous agreement that is the agency of scapegoating (and whose denunciation is the object of the victimary rhetoric that Rousseau inaugurated) is also the agent of the creation of human language as distinct from the prehuman cri de la nature. This is the link we have been seeking between Rousseau’s invention of the victimary and his discovery of the paradox of representation.
In the continuation of this Chronicle, I will examine the more concrete elements of Rousseau’s notion of “natural” human interaction, notably the mimetic function of pity.