It is sometimes claimed that once one accepts the originary hypothesis there is nothing more to say about a given text save to translate it into the terms of the theory. In one of the first GA seminars, a student remarked in praise but also in frustration that GA’s minimalism, in contrast with the baroque complexity of Lacan’s thought, did not give critics the chance to build texts of their own upon its flaws and inconsistencies.
At first glance, this critique sounds like a compliment; how can one complain about logical consistency and parsimoniousness? Yet even when judged by the hard criteria of the sciences rather than the subjective measures of the humanities, a theory that is “too perfect” is clearly not performing its task. Although the purpose of a theory is not to keep a certain number of scientists employed, a valid paradigm is one that not only explains the old data but is conducive to the production of new knowledge.
This may occur in two ways. On the one hand, the paradigm may encourage, in order to corroborate or falsify it, the generation of data at new degrees of distance from everyday experience. This has generally been the case in the natural sciences; it is also the case with the scientific study of human origins. But on the other hand, a new paradigm can evacuate one set of questions and obligate us to reformulate their content in its own terms–terms that presumably reflect more closely the articulations of this content. A superficial example is the reinterpretation of celestial data from Ptolemaic orbits around the Earth to orbits around the sun in the wake of Copernicus and Kepler. More complex are paradigm shifts in the human sciences, where no clear barrier can be established between objective “etic” evaluation and the “emic” one of the culture under study. The emergence of early modern critical thought in opposition to medieval scholasticism is an obvious example, although one we probably understand less well than we think.
GA is a new paradigm of the latter sort. The originary hypothesis evacuates the problematics of classical metaphysics, perhaps most concisely expressed in Kant’s “antinomies of reason,” not, of course, by resolving or dismissing the underlying human problems they point to, but by redefining them, through “originary analysis,” as moments in the originary configuration of the human. What this leaves us as a research program is no less than all of human self-knowledge.
Far from exhausting the universe of humanistic study, originary thinking calls us to a reinterpretation of the totality of our metaphysical heritage. The series of recent Chronicles (and the just-concluded GA seminar) on the subject of the origin of language/culture/religion suggests how whole bodies of work, including texts of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Herder, and Durkheim, may be opened up for rethinking in the light of the originary hypothesis. A similar task could be performed with respect to writings on ethics, esthetics, metaphysics, politics…
Yes, one might object, but you already know the result you seek in each case. In reading Hobbes, Rousseau, or Durkheim, you are really reading your own idea into the texts of these writers as the fancied “solution” to the lacunae one inevitably finds there. Why should we bother to write, or read, the GA book on Kant or Plato if we know in advance that it will only affirm the triumph of the originary hypothesis? GA sets itself innocently in the center that deconstruction had emptied out in the text of Western metaphysics. How can linking all of human culture to that center generate the “cognitive dissonance,” the sparks struck between disparate entities from which new ideas emerge?
This abstract objection can be answered only in context. As we enter the post-millennial era, the victimary paradigm that dominates the humanities today appears increasingly unsatisfactory. The other day I heard a speaker denounce binary oppositions as nothing but ideological disguises for domination. Aside from showing ingratitude to the computer on which it was composed, this deconstructive critique of binarism is eminently deconstructible. If all binary oppositions are ethically dubious, we can surely make no exception for the crudest binary opposition of all, that between the dominant and the dominated, the hegemonic and the subaltern, variants of the good old Hegelian master and slave. Shorn of its revolutionary counterexamples, the victimary critique of the bourgeois social order and its discourses is a nay-saying that inverts the ethos of its Nietzschean origins.
Yet in a final intellectual triumph of the hedgehog of Jerusalem over the fox of Athens, the postmodern victimary paradigm points to the anthropological unity behind the dualistic order of classical metaphysics. In both Derridean deconstruction and Foucauldian discourse-analysis, classical texts, whether in form or content, are combed for signs of victimization, the moral thrust of the critique ensuring that the two elements converge in any case. The value of victimary thinking is to have forced Western thought, however crudely, to acknowledge its ethical basis.
The justification for human inequality, around which revolves all moral thought in societies beyond the tribal, can neither be expelled from center stage nor palmed off on “transcendental” agencies. It must be faced and worked through. Victimary thought may see itself today exclusively as the debunking of “hegemonic” Western metaphysics; but since its origins in the Enlightenment, it has also been an opening to anthropology.
The strength of postmodern victimary thinking is that it has needed no basis other than the moral intuition activated by the Holocaust–nor need it claim even this as its basis. The horrors of a social order based on “binary oppositions” were so clearly illustrated in Auschwitz that an entire era was able to rely on the equation of non-reciprocity with victimage. This is no longer the case in the post-millennial age. The ungrounded intuition that takes the part of the victim against the persecutor has outlived its usefulness; but to return to, say, the Kantian conception of morality would be to take up again the very yoke of metaphysics that has been cast off. The only model of human interaction that can provide an anthropological basis for morality beyond the mere anti-metaphysical inversion that characterizes victimary thinking is one that generates the moral within its human context. If humanity is indeed to be defined by its moral intuition, then this intuition must be hypothesized as coeval with the human.
In my just-concluded GA seminar, Marina Ludwigs suggested that the strongest way to present the case for GA would be to demonstrate that we cannot explain human culture without implicitly referring to its origin and therefore emitting at least implicitly an originary hypothesis.
Although Ockham’s razor provides a prima facie guarantee of the minimal hypothesis, the principle of intellectual parsimony is too ambiguous to found a convincing argument. Those who investigate the phenomena of culture and, ultimately, their physical correlates in the brain, claim to have no need to speculate on their origin. A more developed argument for the originary hypothesis is that, if language and other forms of representation commemorate originary events, then even if one denies the reality of such events, one cannot deny the reality, and therefore the origin, of the commemoration. But those who deny the event-status of the origin of language do the same with that of commemoration.
In this polemic, logic must take a back seat to heuristics. We cannot disagree on the “facts,” because the “fact” of the originary little bang is vanishingly small. Everyone must agree that at one time human or symbolic language didn’t exist and that at a later time it did. The bottom line is the heuristic value in conceiving a scene of origin versus reconstructing the social and ecological context of protohuman culture from the rapidly growing body of neurological, paleontological, primatological, and other data.
I think the best response to Marina’s challenge would be to divide the question. The diversity of the data and its still-fragmentary state would seem to justify empirical scientists’ preference for a weak (as opposed to minimal) hypothesis of human origin. In contrast, those who would construe the meaning of cultural forms have no reason to fear the strong hypothesis of the originary scene. Those who reject GA as a “social contract” theory affect to forget that the only way we can reflect on cultural institutions is to conceive them in their originary form, because in this form these institutions are not merely at their “simplest,” they are emergent.
The philosophies of the ancients differ from those of the moderns in that they conceive the originary form of an institution atemporally, not as a coming-into-being but as an entity subsisting in the world of Ideas, which is in fact the world of signs. Ancient philosophy substituted the sign-Idea for the god, but proposed no anthropological genesis for the sign, and therefore no anthropology as such. Modern thought is historical and therefore anthropological. The “social contract” is its trademark because, perhaps catalyzed by the newly discovered tribal societies in the New World, it conceives the human community as self-constituted from out of humanity’s “natural” state.
It is no coincidence that the “early modern” age of Hobbes and Rousseau was an era of linguistic speculation that would produce theories of Hebrew as Ursprache as well as scenarios of language origin. What we should retain of the social contract is that it is a hypothetical event that creates peace out of violence. Its flaw is its artificial separation of the collective formulation of the contract from the collective violence to which it is the solution. The scene of the contract figures the originary passage from violence to peace without being able to justify it because it fails to describe the birth of the sign that is the specifically human instrument of this peace.
The end of culture is the generation of meaning through representation–minimal in the linguistic sign, maximal in ritual ceremony. Works of art do not have meaning; they effect the generation of meaning. To interpret a literary work is to explain this effectuation, or, in other terms, to conceive the artwork as an originary hypothesis. Such a “hypothesis” is not minimal; but the excellence of the interpretation depends upon its clear articulation of the crisis by means of which the work generates in us the sentiment of significance. No work of art merely repeats a myth of origin; but in its newness, it is the originary we seek.
We cannot fulfill the critic’s obligation to bridge the gap between representation and reality if in demonstrating the work’s significance we take significance itself as an unanalyzable term. Once we begin to explain how we experience the work as significant, we are using the artwork to help us explain significance itself, which is only possible because we understand significance itself on the mimetic, scenic, generative model of the artwork. It is because all cultural analysis, in a word, is always already generative anthropology that there is progress to be made in rethinking this analysis in full cognizance of this equation. Perhaps this is as close as we can come to a formal demonstration of the kind that Marina would have us seek.