What keeps me writing these Chronicles is my conviction that the originary hypothesis and the corollary ideas elaborated here are a new beginning in human thought. One accomplishment of this new beginning is the demystification of the vocabulary of the sacred.
The mind immersed in culture tends to accept uncritically whatever concepts are presented to it; in the general case, this is no doubt a valuable survival mechanism. Looking through movie listings, I am struck by the matter-of-fact assertion of absurdities: a couple driving through the desert picks up hitchhiking vampires; a father must deal with his son’s psychic powers, etc. In such fictions, the “supernatural” is accepted as an imaginary category associated with an alternative world in most respects like our own, but with the addition of new forces and phenomena. That such imaginings are associated, apparently from the beginning, with human language is not generally felt to require an explanation. Nor are these imaginings confined to fiction, which is in fact a secondary formation; in the domain of religious belief, and often outside it, we are asked to accept the existence of “supernatural beings” who either reside in “another world,” from which they influence and occasionally visit our everyday universe, or are omnipresent but imperceptible in our own save in the rare moments in which they decide to manifest themselves. When the question arises as to the origin of such ideas, the answer is either that supernatural beings do indeed exist (the theistic position) or else (the Enlightenment position) that we imagine their existence in order to reinforce the solidarity of the human group for whose benefit they are believed to exist. The first answer begs the question openly, by referring to a higher power; the second begs the question as well, but implicitly, since it ignores the obvious follow-up: where do these imaginings come from if they do not reflect worldly reality?
The originary hypothesis explains the supernatural economically: its essence is the transcendence inherent in the originary operation of language, and its extension to the imaginary or pseudo-real, where we encounter such entities as immortal and omnipotent gods, reflects the extension to language in general of the originary transcendence at the heart of the human phenomenon of representation. Arbitrary or “symbolic” signification is discontinuous with animal communication systems as well as with natural “codes” such as those found in our genes. Representation defines and is defined by events, which are peculiar to the human species; only we have an event-consciousness. The relationship between a sign and its referent, which Saussure understood to be mediated by the sign’s internal meaning or “signified,” is not an empirical datum that we can find in the real world; describing signification as “substituting one thing for another” begs the question of the radical newness inherent in the “substitution” of a sign for a thing, as opposed to the substitution of one thing for another as an alternative means of fulfilling the same function.
The sign is the model for what we call the supernatural. Signs are “immortal”–a sign does not die when people stop using it–“omnipresent”–there being no impediment to the same sign being in more than one place at the same time–and “omnipotent”–language having the power to refer to anything whatsoever. We can attribute these qualities to beings only once we know of them, and we know them through our experience of language.
This thinking may sound suspiciously like an example of the language fetishism of the postmodern era, when people spoke of language as if it were an independent agent “speaking through” its apparent subject, reduced to a function within it (“the Subject is that which says ‘I’”). The resemblance is no mere coincidence, but it abstracts from the anthropological grounding of this thinking in the originary hypothesis. The language fetishists, after all, were onto something, just as even the benighted Creationists are onto something. The human is most simply defined by its possession of language, and it is not a useless exercise to understand language not merely as having its source outside us but as remaining independent of our individual will, not to be sure as an unexplainable absolute, but as the creator and creation of human community. But the nature of the link between language and community cannot be conceptualized in the absence of a generative hypothesis that plausibly situates this creation in the world of our immediate prehuman ancestors.
From the believer’s standpoint, that is, from the perspective of one who denies to humanity the possibility of creating on its own the transcendence manifest in language, there can be no self-sufficient originary hypothesis, no model of an event that generates the transcendent from within the “horizontal” world of appetite. Just as the Creationist preserves in the face of scientific gradualism a kernel of evolutionary truth–that the human must have arisen in an event–so religious belief in general preserves a still more fundamental truth: that no hypothesis, however plausible, can fully bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, and this because even if we were somehow able to witness for ourselves the hypothetical originary event, we would be unable to perceive the passage from one to the other. Indeed, we cannot “perceive” transcendence at all. The eternal malentendu between believers and skeptics, which cannot be limited either historically or conceptually to an effect of the “disenchantment” or “secularization” associated with the emergence of early modern market society, finds its ground in the indemonstrability of this derivation of transcendence from immanence.
Indeed, the very language with which we describe this alternative participates in the very same ambiguity: belief is quia absurdum, not merely supplementary to but contrary to rational discourse. Were rational discourse able to explain its own genesis, there would be no need for belief. But by the same token, the originary event of signification, founded on the “belief” that the aborted gesture of appropriation indeed signifies the henceforth sacred central object, cannot be detached from the logic inherent in any system of representation through signs. “Faith” and “reason” are inseparable. If the nature of symbolic signification is to rely on an act of faith–there being no inherent meaningfulness in the sign that links it “naturally” (in Peircean terms, indexically or iconically) to its referent–then as soon as this assignment is made, the arbitrariness can be forgotten, since now it has been established that the sign means the referent and may be “substituted” for it. To separate faith and reason is not to oppose them as faculties or agents but to articulate their emergence from a common root. This can only be done historically, in the spirit of Hegelian dialectic “stood on its head,” not as Marx thought, in the material world, but in the material-spiritual universe of sign-using humanity.
The category of the supernatural, like any category that naturalizes the sacred by treating it as if it were a domain analogous to the real world, reflects by its very nature a failure of thought. I imagine that if our species endures long enough, there will come a time when people will smile at our willingness to accept uncritically a dichotomy with no basis in experience. Just as we accept the fictive possibility of picking up vampire hitchhikers, we agree to speak of beings not subject to the laws of nature as though our language were merely a passive reflection, if not of reality in the narrow sense, then of an imaginary realm where fictive beings exist alongside non-fictional ones.
The late Roy Rappaport, in his posthumous Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity(Cambridge, 1999), an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to update Max Müller’s intuition that language and religion are coeval, saw the unfalsifiable nature of religious assertions as a defense against the possibility, opened up by language, of lying, as though language were first invented for the practical purpose of describing reality and only subsequently was discovered to permit its users to emit false statements. What is missing from Rappaport’s notion of coevality is a hypothetical scene of common origin. To say that two things originated “at the same time” in the strong sense of the term requires the reconstruction of a singular event of origin, lacking which “the same time” can refer undecidably to occurrences years, centuries, or even (in “geological time”) millions of years apart. To speak of two things occurring at “the same time” without realizing that the sameness would have no real meaning if it were not perceptible to the participants themselves is to perpetuate the same lack of critical rigor that ensures the survival of concepts like the “supernatural.”
Perhaps the most convincing proof that Generative Anthropology constitutes a radical advance in human thought is that it encounters not simply resistance but indifference. Today’s orthodoxies are far more impenetrable than those of the past. In contrast to the latter, those of today trace their origin to the “revolutionary” thought of the Enlightenment; as a consequence, ideas that do not conform to them are qualified not as “ahead of their time,” which would attract for them the sympathy of the victimary position, but as reactionary and consequently unworthy even of refutation.
The credo of the Enlightenment is that “progress” will inevitably bring the triumph of the best or truest ideas, but if the primary function of ideas is to hold the community together–an exception being made in the modern era for the concepts of the “understanding” that refer to the natural world–then anthropological truth will always put pragmatic considerations above conceptual rigor, Ockham’s razor be damned. Yet conversely, the peace brought about by the “deferral of violence through representation” always leaves open the possibility of entertaining, and who knows? adopting ideas such as these. Ideas, like signs, are “immortal”; they may be forgotten, but unlike their creators, they do not die. The library, or the Internet, is the only eternity they will ever need.