The faith of GA, as I attempted to explain in Chronicle 200, is that all thinking is “really” originary thinking. Such an assertion, if it is not to be mere rhetoric, should be followed by at least some indication that its content is of some value for the thinking-that-is-really-GA-but-doesn’t-know-it-yet that it purports to enlighten, that those engaged in humanistic/anthropological research will find explicit awareness of and reference to the originary hypothesis to be to their intellectual–if not academic–advantage.

My readings in the scientific literature have convinced me that humanistic studies can retain their significance only by taking on a more rigorous character, but that this rigor cannot be attained through social-science empiricism, even modified in the direction of biological modularity. On the contrary, the most rigorous, or perhaps I should say minimally unrigorous, way to deal with the phenomena of culture created by the speculative freedom of human representation is to trace these phenomena back to their minimal source in the hypothetical originary event in which representation first emerged.

Our unique capacity to construct fictional worlds is founded on our unique capacity to experience-and-recall events. A “science of culture” would take this capacity and its products as its object. Of the many historical manifestations it might study, humanists lay claim to the most extensive and intricately structured “data set,” the world of literature and the arts that they alone have the knowledge and training to analyze. Humanistic modes of interpretation would enrich the science of culture by exploring what in each individual artwork reproduces the event-nature of human origin.


In the hypothetical originary scene, the experience of avoidance and fascination that we call the sacred is not simply a relation between the individual participant and the central object; its crucial element is the emission of the sign that communicates this experience to the others in the group. The sacred experience is one of representation-as-a-substitute-for-appropriation, but once we have represented-instead-of-appropriating, we are less likely to think of appropriating and more of representing. The sacred can be kept alive only by renewing the experience of its birth, regenerating the collective mimetic tension that valorized the sacred object in the first place. This necessary renewal is the function served by culture.

How, on this definition, does the necessity of culture imply that of art? Why is it not sufficient to reproduce the scene of crisis in sacrificial ritual? Why does the originary scene give rise not merely to a formal process of signification (the sign signifies the sacred being) and an institutional process of reproduction (the ritual scene reproduces the originary scene) but an esthetic process in which both the sign and its scenic referent are present? This question offers subject-matter for a GA research program on two levels.

The first is that of esthetic theory. The philosophy of art in antiquity and more particularly the study of the effects of art in the early modern era that led to Baumgarten’s Esthetics and Kant’s Critique of [the Power of] Judgment has much to reveal about how this intermediary domain has been (mis)conceived within Western metaphysics. Kant’s famous notion of the judgment of taste as being “universal without a concept” acquires new meaning in the light of our definition of conceptual-metaphysical thought as that which posits the declarative-logical “proposition” rather than the ostensive as the minimal utterance-form. The experience of “the beautiful” remains in Kant’s system within the intermediary realm of the judgment, which normally assigns a sign-idea to a sensory experience, without ever subsuming its experience under any given concept. But Kant does not see the dependence of the esthetic on representation; his “judgment without a concept” is no more than a suggestively paradoxical union of uniqueness and universality (cf. “unity in diversity”) detached from the generative context of human history.  Because originary thinking encounters the sign before its signified becomes a “concept,” it can explain the anthropological function of this “intermediary” state in which both sign and imaginary referent are held in the mind simultaneously, or, more precisely, in a state of oscillation.

As the two elements of signification, the ancestors of Saussure’s signifier and signified, the originary sign and its sacred referent are not merely “associated” in the traditional behaviorist sense but linked in a new kind of relationship that we call signification. We experience signification as an asymmetrical binary relation of sign and meaning in which the thought of one calls up the thought of the other. We say that the originary sign represents its referent because perception of the sign provokes (real or imaginary) perception of the central object, but perception of this object as significant requires in turn continual reinforcement through perception of the sign.

In an ostensive utterance where sign and referent are both present to the participants, this oscillation may be actualized as a physical movement. When the sign is used in the absence of its object, this oscillatory movement is transferred to the imagination. The sign conjures up an image of the object that, whatever real experiences may have contributed to it, is not an independent trace of worldly experience but one dependent on the sign. Let us recall that the primary function of the sign is not to increase our knowledge of the world but to maintain peace within the community by sacralizing an object of potential mimetic conflict. The esthetic moment of oscillation is the process through which investment of energy in emitting the sign replaces the impossible praxis of appropriating the object. The sign not merely signifies its object but engages with it in a dynamic process of becoming-significant. The collective discharge of mimetic tension in ritual sacrifice depends on the esthetic reinforcement of the sacralizing-signifying link between sign and referent in the individual participants.

This analysis might be taken to suggest that the esthetic is the truly essential, dynamic moment of the generative process of culture and that the sacred is no more than its static residue. But we must be careful not to apply to the human in general the valorization of the dynamic over the static characteristic of modern market society. The “esthetic” central object does not survive the scene; all that remains is the signification-relation that associates the sign as name-of-God with sacred Being. As the basis of communal order, the sacred cannot be constantly put to the test of esthetic judgment. That this is indeed the effect of esthetic experience is substantiated by the hostility of sacred institutions to “secular” art. But to say that the sacred is put into question by esthetic experience is tantamount to saying that it was through esthetic experience that it was generated in the first place.


The second level of our research program is that of the empirical examination of esthetic experience. Humans obtain enjoyment from stories and may reasonably be said to have a need for them; all cultures engage in storytelling, from the level of communally accepted myth to that of ephemeral gossip. Positive anthropology finds it easy to conceive adaptive functions for storytelling just as it does for language. The paleoanthropologist who explains the emergence of language as a means to communicate the location of food sources can similarly explain storytelling as a means to communicate useful knowledge about both natural and social reality. In contrast, if we derive language minimalistically from the sign emitted to defer mimetic conflict, we must maintain a similar minimalism with respect to narrative.

As I attempted to show in “Originary Narrative” (http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0302/narrative.htm), originary narrative is the story of the emission of the sign as the genesis of signification, the becoming-sacred/meaningful of the central object. Telling a story is not a simple matter of finding a referent and then using a sign to represent or recall it. The significance that we find at the end of the story has been generated in the course of the story. No story can offer a logical demonstration of the significance of its object, but some stories are more successful than others at maintaining the reader/hearer in a state of oscillation between sign and (imaginary) referent. In a successful narrative just as in the plastic arts–where, however, the temporality of esthetic reception is less explicitly structured–we are continually motivated to return to the work to replenish our imagination. The source of this motivation is not necessarily “suspense,” although the latter is certainly a frequent component of successful narratives.

Significance is something that each narrative must generate anew, not reproduce. A story, whatever its basis in fact, is not a contingent representation of something that exists but a generative representation of an imaginary and therefore “fictional” referent. Narratives are the means by which we renew our contact with the originary function of language. This is the grain of truth in the romantic paranoia that opposes literary language, and the sphere of art in general, to the “disenchanted” discourse of the modern, secular, rationalized world as though the two domains were not interdependent.

The generation of significance through narrative is prior to the conceptual or metaphysical use of language and does not therefore depend on it. In contrast to narrative, conceptual discourse, which includes the logical and the scientific, describes  what is in principle already there; it does not bring it into being. Yet because all human language comes from the same generative root, the contrast between the two forms of discourse can never be made absolute; no language is purely conceptual or “positive,” particularly not that of the sphere of human science.

It is the achievement of deconstruction to have grasped this point in reading philosophical and culture-theoretical “texts” as being of a kind with works of the literary imagination. The deconstructive critique of metaphysics has much in common with that of originary thinking. Its crucial weakness lies in its failure to criticize the principal unspoken pretension of metaphysical discourse that language itself is metaphysical, a proposition implicit in the term “logocentrism.” Language is indeed logocentric; but the mutual dependence of logos and center expressed by this term is precisely what demonstrates the essential lateness, the anthropological modesty, of metaphysics.  This demonstration should encourage us to pursue the analysis of narratives and other “texts” as so many historical examples of originary thinking.