I’d like to use this first column of the year to tell my readers why they should be interested in generative anthropology.
Although the most spectacular element of originary thinking is the notion that the human is born in an originary scene, the importance of the scene is as the locus for the self-conscious emergence of human significance or transcendence. Whatever unconscious and imperceptible developments may have prepared the way for humanity, the human is characterized by the conscious use of signs.
GA is a rethinking of the human as a single category of being characterized by transcendence and modeled by the use of signs. In all the essential aspects of culture there is a second level of reality that models the first. Language is the most fundamental human institution, but the others, religion, art, morality and ethics, as well as such non-institutionalized features of human interaction as desire, love, and resentment, are likewise transcendental in nature.
This vision of the unity of the human experience permits an enormous simplification of the models by which we understand ourselves. In particular, it allows us to understand such apparently disparate concepts as God, immortality, the beautiful/sublime, the good, by reference to the simple, explicit, and familiar model of the linguistic sign.
Use of language involves two levels of being. On the one hand, there is the world to which the sign refers, on the other, the world in which the sign itself subsists. In the simplest model of language, a sign refers to a thing. But whereas signs and things are both material objects, the use of one to refer to the other adds a new category of meanings to the prehuman epistemology of appetite. For although signs are things like anything else, they do not signify as things, but as tokens of a universal model. When I pronounce or write the word tree, I have created a “thing,” but the word tree itself is not a thing, since the existence of a word is independent of any specific instance of it.
And just as the word tree is not a thing, neither is the meaning of the word. Trees are perishable material objects, but the meaning tree is not. This meaning is what Ferdinand de Saussure called the signified of the sign.
The two essential characteristics of the human sign are thus type-token reproduceability and meaningfulness, the subsistence of their meaning beyond the concrete referential universe. Any description of the originary scene of language must account for these features, although the need for such an accounting has not been generally understood. The persistence of meaning as it emerges in this scene is the model for all cultural phenomena. God’s and our soul’s immortality, and, even more directly, the transcendent status of Plato‘s Ideas, may be understood on the model of the meanings of language. When Plato speaks of the Good, he is referring to the commonly accepted meaning of the word, and his social optimism–that no one willingly does evil, that true knowledge necessarily produces a conflict-free social order–stems from his extrapolation from this common acceptance of the word and its meaning to the common acceptance of social norms.
In Christian doctrine, the notion of immortality is one of the eternal presence of the whole of one’s existence. (James Williams‘ recent messages to the GAlist have developed this perspective.) In mainstream Buddhism, as I understand it, the ideal is seemingly the opposite: to lose all earthly ties and become one with the Universal. But both models of the afterlife are readily understandable, and mutually opposable, in terms of the linguistic model suggested above.
In the Christian case, all the material elements of our lives, especially our morally significant interactions with others, are preserved as though they had the same status as meanings. When we seek to do something meaningful, we hope to transcend the materiality of our act to make a permanent contribution to humanity, to preserve our good name (see Column No. 15 for an earlier state of this discussion). Thus the “Western” approach to immortality is to make every act significant, meaningful, to forget nothing and to preserve everything, lest some infinitesimal contribution to the course of human events be lost.
The “Eastern” view is closer to this than first appears. The soul’s need to attain the domain of permanent significance is expressed in the language of liberation rather than in that of constructive achievement. Worldly appetite ties us to the impermanent; to accede to the domain of pure meaningfulness, we must free ourselves from our worldly attachments. In this perspective, the essence of our worldly activity is not interaction with others, but material appetite. But what is valued in both cases is what produced the peaceful resolution of the originary scene of language: the renunciation of material appetite as the potential source of mimetic conflict and its replacement by the meaningful sign. In one case, the worldly becomes meaningful; in the other, meaningfulness leaves the worldly behind–but in both cases, the meaningful stands in relation to the worldly as the Saussurean signified stands to the word’s material referent.
If you can follow this line of thinking, then you have understood the essence of generative anthropology.