Watching the World Series (I need not tell you which team the Bronx Romantic roots for) reminds me that nothing is more serious than the cultural games that have allowed us humans to survive in the first place. In the broadest sense, a game, whether ritualized or free-form, is any activity in which a shared significance in a meaningful goal or activity distracts us from the Hobbesian war of all against all. A memorable example of this deferral is the closing scene of the 1966 film The Naked Prey, starring Cornel Wilde as a “white hunter” captured by a warlike tribe and given a head start to be hunted like prey. Wilde survives through cunning, killing a number of his pursuers in the process. At the end, he reaches the safety of a colonial outpost. As they give up the pursuit, his remaining pursuers, whose companions he has killed, nevertheless bid him a warm farewell. He has shared the premise of their “game” and this mutual understanding has subordinated the deadly violence of this game to the fundamental human gesture of representation.
Just as one can use games to act upon the world outside–Dale Carnegie increasing steel production by inciting competition among shifts, automobile racing leading to engine improvements, better video for better video games–we can often understand our worldly actions on the model of a game. We speak of the “race” to colonize the New World or to put a man on the moon. The importance of game theory in today’s economic and political theorizing needs no demonstration here.
I used to think there was a race to discover the origin of language, on the analogy of the “missing link” that paleontologists once thought would solve the Darwinian problem of the origin of man. Today, as research continues and knowledge accumulates, people vie for specific prizes–today’s biggest will be for describing how language operates in the brain–but no one is going for the $64,000,000 question, the origin of the human as such. Like President Clinton questioning the definition of “is,” we are unwilling to define humanity specifically enough to conceive of an event of origin.
I think I have already answered the $64,000,000 question, but I’m not waiting for the check to arrive. The originary hypothesis wins by default a game no one else is playing. This sheds light on the postmodern era in which GA originated, without telling exactly how it will fare in the post-millennial age now beginning. Some Bronx Romantic had to make it his destiny to play the game, both heroic and cowardly, that no one else cared or dared to play: it’s lonely out there on the court, but if nobody else is playing you can’t lose. I am mindful of the fact that this description of events puts me at the very center of the world’s intellectual history. But as Doug Collins has been telling me for years, the center is just where you don’t want to be. Once it was dangerous but thrilling; today it is deserted, or so they say.
We cannot understand what game we are playing when we investigate the origin of language unless we examine the origin of the question itself. The “history of ideas,” of the answers offered over the centuries to the great questions, precludes providing more satisfactory answers than those it discusses; it rather implies that the question cannot be answered at all and that we are really concerned only with the “socially constructed” historical responses it has provoked. Yet to grasp effectively the implications of Hobbes’s or Rousseau’s theories of language is to establish their relationship to a more mature theory, just as an effective appreciation of Galileo’s physics requires its insertion into Newton’s, not to say Einstein’s. The historical insight we can obtain from Enlightenment theories of the origin of language is directly proportional to the anthropological insight of our own theory. This suggests that we read the thinkers of the Enlightenment in the light of the originary hypothesis.
Our vastly greater store of data–ethnological, linguistic, neurological, evolutionary–is not our sole advantage over these thinkers. The canard that the originary hypothesis offers only a social-contract explanation of the origin of language has at least the virtue of reminding us that nothing essential in Generative Anthropology was unavailable to the Enlightenment merely because of its less advanced state of technical knowledge. Nor do we need to know more about human nature than Hobbes or Cervantes to understand the centrality to society of what Girard would later call mimetic desire. What makes it possible for us to conceive a fundamental anthropology unavailable to the thinkers of the Enlightenment is a product not of our technical experience but of our ethical experience. It is what we have learned from history rather than what we have learned in the laboratory that allows us a more synthetic view of the human than our predecessors. History is our anthropological laboratory–a point missed by those who regret that we cannot turn back the clock to observe tribal life in all its glory.
Why, for example, is Hobbes, despite his interest in the relation between language and thought, not concerned to formulate an originary hypothesis that would associate the contractual birth of the social order with the birth of language? My thesis is that, despite all Hobbes had experienced of mimetic violence and of the urgent need to prevent its spread, it was only after World War II that it became possible to conceive of the human condition as absolutely dependent on the deferral of violence. A generative, mimetic anthropology was only conceivable once we had the experience not merely of a society in danger of dissolution but of humanity itself in danger of destruction. What defines the postwar, “postmodern” period is both the magnitude of the danger posed by violence in the nuclear era, which makes its deferral an absolute necessity, and a renewed awareness of the sacrificial component of culture, comparable but on a vaster scale with the insight into sacrifice that Joseph de Maistre won from the experience of the execution of Louis XVI. The model of the Holocaust justified and continues to justify the revolt of the victims, even anti-Semitic “victims,” in the postwar era. The most powerful political force in this period has been the guarantee afforded to victimary resentment. Victimary thinking translates any more or less systematic difference in worldly success into an absolute difference between the sacrificed and their sacrificers. As a result, overt structures of domination such as colonialism, apartheid, and racial segregation lost their claim to de jure status and were effectively ended; subsequently, physical handicaps, gender, ethnicity, and “sexual orientation” have become sources of victimary status and, to various degrees, the privileges that accompany it.
The victimary thinking that has dominated the political wisdom of the postwar era both hides and reveals its anthropological underpinnings. Although Girard’s anthropology takes sacrifice too seriously to make it popular among victimary thinkers, its fundamental insight derives from victimage as the fundamental human solution to the conflict engendered by mimetic desire. A point that most readers of Violence and the Sacred failed to grasp was that Girard’s understanding of the sacrificial solution to human violence presupposed that it had been superseded–only later would we discover by what. Nor is this the Rousseauian paradox of human culture’s always-already supersession of the state of nature; the overcoming of sacrifice is a historical phenomenon that Girard would later situate in the Mosaic and Christian revelations.
Hobbes created a model of the origin of social order as a remedy for an anarchic state of nature rather than a model of the origin of the human out of pre-human nature. Evolutionary considerations aside, the inhabitants of Hobbes’s state of nature must already be human because both their mutual hostility and its contractual solution are dependent on representation. Nor would Hobbes have thought to present contractual government as an improvement on a sacrificial stage of human society, which it would, on the contrary, risk resembling too much.
Nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of the body, and mind, as that though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.
For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty or more eloquent or more learned, yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves . . . But this proveth rather that men are in that point equal, than unequal. For there is not ordinarily a greater sign of the equal distribution of any thing than that everyman is contented with his share.
From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies. (Leviathan, I, xiii)
Hobbes implicitly recognizes that our capacity for representation both makes us equal in potential violence and generates our propensity to envy. Affirming with dry irony our equality in “wisdom,” Hobbes suggests that what matters is the equality of our representations of ourselves: each can imagine himself in the other’s place. Yet neither here or elsewhere does he draw the originary and seemingly obvious connection between the symmetrical operations of representation both in fomenting and in deferring conflict.
Let us reexamine the remarkable sequence in Part I, Chapters iii-iv of Leviathan that I referred to in Chronicle 176. At the end of Chapter iii (“Of the Consequence or Train of Imaginations”), Hobbes points out that since “whatsoever we imagine is finite,” we cannot imagine anything infinite. It follows that our use of the name of God is “not to make us conceive him, for he is incomprehensible . . . but that we may honour him.”
In the following chapter (“Of Speech”), with no explicit link between the passages, Hobbes describes language as the gift of God to mankind. (“The first author of speech was God himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as he presented to his sight . . .”) Language is described as granting humanity the possibility of mutual understanding that distinguishes us from the beasts:
But the most noble and profitable invention of all other, was that of speech, consisting of names or appellations, and their connexion; whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past; and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which, there had been amongst men, neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves. (I, iv)
The dissymmetry between these two references to God and human language displays the limits of Hobbes’s “originary thinking,” and, indeed, of that of the Enlightenment as a whole. From the standpoint of the originary hypothesis, the gift of language and the conception of the sacred are two views of the same event. The originary sign is an ostensive pointing to the sacred center; it is from the outset the bearer of sacrality and its emission, a primordial act of worship. It is through this common gesture that we experience the gift of language “for mutual utility” as permitting us to establish “contract” and “peace.”
In presenting language as the mark of the human, Hobbes expels from the human sphere the violence that language is said to protect us from; lions, bears, and wolves are innocent of the egalitarian human envy presented in Chapter xiii as the source of our own “natural” violence. This expulsion permits Hobbes to treat signification as an instrumental function accorded us by a preexistent deity. If we follow the flow of his text from one chapter to the next, the sign’s incapacity to represent its “infinite” object makes it an act of worship and only as the object of this act does God grant the sign to us. But this analysis is implicit, “textual” rather than thematic. The act of worship generates God in Hobbes’s text, not in his ontology.
The political context of the new anthropology of the Enlightenment, intended to provide a basis for the early modern state, makes it easy to overlook the significance of the social contract as an anthropological model. For Hobbes, the contract is not a historical phenomenon but an a posteriori justification for authoritarian rule. Yet both the violence and the “contract” that defers it are moments of the originary scene of language. The asymmetrical sovereignty of Leviathan only extends to a human monarch the sacred difference of the center.
The political aim of securing and preserving order in an emerging bourgeois economy is incompatible with an originary model in which order is coeval with equality. No historical system of governance can be justified by a model that situates the deferral of human violence at the origin of the human itself. As we shall see, even Rousseau, who opened the door to anthropology proper by his ontological demotion of the social and who saw language more as a source of mimetic conflict than of its resolution, remained wedded to a concept of a human “state of nature” to which, for better or worse, order can be brought only from without.