Perhaps the deepest motivation for Generative Anthropology is the need to raise the level of our discourse about the existence of God, which habitually begin by defining “God” and then go on to examine the evidence for his/her/its existence… These mind-numbing exercises persist, and not only among the intellectually unsophisticated. The other day I read a review of a book about Albert Camus that went on at length about Camus’ inversion of Christian belief into a faith in the non-existence of God. Is the world “absurd”? If so, does its absurdity prove the non-existence of God? This kind of ratiocination is about as helpful as counting angels on pinheads.
But this does not mean that we should simply dismiss the whole debate, in good Enlightenment fashion, as a survival from the dark ages of the soul. If we declared the question of God’s existence meaningless, as the logical positivists thought they could do, all religious questions would be expelled from rational discourse. On the contrary: it is the very importance of religious questions that makes the usual terms in which they are debated so frustrating.
I sometimes wonder about the helpfulness of the originary hypothesis for analyzing literary texts, but I have no doubt whatsoever that it evacuates the old clichés of Western philosophy about the existence of God. We need a new way of thinking that provides a qualitatively more neutral language in which to speak of religious matters. And because humans do not live in hermetically sealed universes of discourse, the creation and dissemination (which are not the same thing!) of such a language are bound to transform religious discourse and, as a consequence, the reality of religion itself. I believe GA as it stands today is the beginning of such a language, although I cannot tell when or even whether people will begin to speak it.
Generative Anthropology is about the origin of the human, defined as the origin of language. We have heard enough recently about the sacralization of language. But those who treat language as a transcendent force beyond our control not only fail to reconstruct its source, they deny that such a source is conceivable. The point of the originary hypothesis is to minimize the scandal of conceiving the moment of the origin of language, which is the moment of passage between the non-human and the human.
No one claims that animals, who do not possess representation, know God. What we claim to know of God is known only through representation, that is, through language in its broadest sense. We know we have language, then, and we claim to have knowledge of God. To what extent is the first knowledge tantamount to, or even equivalent to, the second?
Language helps us to understand God because it provides us with a model of transcendence and its “mystery.” The linguistic sign cannot be understood simply as one thing substituted for another, aliquid stat pro aliquo. It belongs to a different “world,” in Karl Popper’s terminology, one that shares the quality generally attributed to God of existing outside time and space. The representational sign is “immortal”; even when it falls into disuse, it retains the virtual being of a God that is no longer worshiped rather than dissolving into its elements like a dead animal. In the same vein, the immortality of our soul is analogous to that of a linguistic text. A book can decay, but the words that compose it do not die a material death even when they disappear; the same may be said of our thoughts.
We cannot explain these analogies by claiming that the sacred itself is merely an epiphenomenon or, as Max Müller (the subject of an upcoming Chronicle) put it in his famous dictum, a “disease” of language. Thus because the sun (to use Müller’s own favorite example) is the subject of the verb in “the sun rises,” it comes to be understood as having the other attributes of human subjectivity. This understanding of the sacred as an anthropomorphic construction of natural reality is limited to grammatical relations, which lack any analogy to transcendence. Because it relies on the natural, it cannot take into account the deeper analogy contained in the other-worldly ontology of the sign itself.
In the common-sense view that Müller shares, language is part of the everyday world whereas God is veiled in mystery. But treating sacred mystery as disease and desacralized language as healthy will not explain the origin of either language or the sacred. The mystery of the sacred belongs to the domain of language as well. It is the conjunction of language and the sacred that is the defining feature of our species; the purpose of the originary hypothesis is to explain the origin of this conjunction.
To think of the origin of language is to think of a mystery to which God’s existence offers a preemptive solution. This existence is both the central article of all religious faith and a category error. To the extent that God (i.e., for the atheist) is no more than the signified or meaning of the originary sign, he cannot be said to exist any more than the word-form “tree” exists; his immortality depends precisely on his not possessing the existence of a real, mortal tree. But to the extent that God (i.e., for the believer) is not merely a sign but solves the mystery of the sign, his “existence” is altogether different from that of a tree and cannot therefore be understood under the same concept. Saint Anselm’s ontological proof claims that God, as the most perfect being, must exist because existence is a “perfection.” But aside from the question-begging nature of the argument, it is not proved even in its own terms. Why not claim the exact opposite? As Keats put it, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” We would understand each other better if instead of arguing over whether God exists, we reflected on what it means to say that he is.
GA does not, like God, solve the mystery of the sign through preemption, but it is the first mode of thought to take the solution of this mystery as its methodological challenge. The minimality of the originary hypothesis reduces faith it to its lowest common denominator, abstracted from the historical circumstances in which its revelations were procured. When we speak of analogies between God and the sign, the sign we speak of is not the word or “sememe” of language in its mature state, but the sign in the minimal, originary configuration of language where there are no other signs from which it may be differentiated. In this originary state the Saussurian equation of meaning with difference breaks down; the first sign differentiates not with respect to other signs but by pointing out its referent from its unmarked surroundings. If God can be understood through the sign of language, it is as the Being of what that sign–understood as the “name of God”–designates. God is more than a signified or meaning, an Idea or concept. He is the substance that grounds the possibility of meaning, the sacred being that must be before we can designate some particular thing (the central object of the originary scene of representation) as sacred.
The originary hypothesis does not require us to believe in God because it does not presuppose the anteriority of the sacred to the human. I would not say with Girard that the sacred is human violence, even with the precision that its emergence requires the proliferation of violence in a “mimetic crisis” that can be resolved only by the concentration of the community’s hostility on a single object. What is sacred is the object of the community’s common desire. This desire need not be generated merely as a means to discharge the mimetic tension of the group; it may simply–I think more parsimoniously–be provoked by a particularly attractive object of consumption. The function of the sacred is the deferral of violence, and this is accomplished through representation, through the generation of the sign.
From a religious perspective, any object that so concentrates human desire is a divine revelation that the human community can found itself around this concentration of desire. The generation and reproduction of this concentration is not limited to the specific mortal object that on this occasion effects it. The sign that designates the object persists after the object has been destroyed (presumably to be shared as food among the group); its meaning is not exhausted by any specific referent, nor even by the signified to which the referent is related as a token to a type. The sign does not demonstrate God’s existence; it affirms the violence-deferring presence of sacred being.
However difficult the exposition of these ideas may be–and I apologize to the reader for any obscurity–they seem to me a clear improvement over the usual modes of discourse on the subject of God’s existence. Yet they are generally met with an indifference that is partly a failure of marketing, but cannot be this alone. To say that the world is not yet ready for them is to beg the question of their future value.
Is Generative Anthropology too much oriented toward solving old problems rather than toward posing new ones? In simplifying our understanding of human reality does it fail to suggest new lines of empirical research to confirm this understanding? Or is this failure caused rather by the disjunction between the motivations and strategies of scientific research and the process of humanistic thinking, which (in this respect like religion) cannot influence scientific research programs without sacrificing its central anthropological insight. Thus even when empirical research corroborates various aspects of the originary hypothesis, as with Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species discussed in Chronicle 168, the conjunction, of interest to us, is without consequence to the empirical researchers themselves.
My own view is that no research program based on biological categories can explain human language. I understand that cognitive scientists might not be particularly anxious to agree with me on this point. But if we change the word “language” to “religion,” it becomes harder to disagree, whether one is a believer or not. The idea of God makes explicit the mystery implicit in language. To the extent that this making-explicit is the very ground upon which Generative Anthropology rests, GA is more fundamentally a theory of religion than a theory of representation. I don’t think Durkheim would have disapproved of such a definition of the most fundamental human science.