Chris Fleming of the University of Western Sydney, author of René Girard: Violence and Mimesis (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004) and co-author of three articles in Anthropoetics (most recently, Romanticism), was in California this month on an all too short study leave. During his trip, Chris brought up a few challenging questions. I have put these in my own words, so Chris should not be held responsible for the formulations that follow.
1. From the beginning, GA has taken for granted that the minimality or parsimony of originary thinking is a sign of its validity. But what justifies making Ockham’s razor the ultimate criterion of an anthropological hypothesis? However simple it may be to speak of a single originary event during which all the essential categories of the human emerged, if some day we discover that these categories emerged over time, or in different places, should theoretical elegance trump correspondence with the facts? And even if there are no “facts” available to disturb our hypothesis, doesn’t taking minimality as an a priori reintroduce metaphysics at the heart of our minimally metaphysical anthropology?
In its normal sense of requiring the postulation of the fewest parameters or “imaginary entities” necessary to account for a given phenomenon, Ockham’s razor applies to natural phenomena and to human phenomena considered in the same light as these. But the phenomena of human culture are not “empirical” but (in phenomenological terms) intentional. To utter a word is to perform a physical act, but we understand this act as the willed production of a token of a sign-type that in principle communicates a meaning, which is also a significance, to others who share the speaker’s sense of what is significant.
Because the features of human representation are not arbitrary parameters, instrumental nominalism cannot be applied to a set of intentional categories that define the place of their object in human culture. The minimality of the originary hypothesis applies not to the parameters of the scenario it proposes but to the postulation of a single event in which human representation in both its formal/linguistic and institutional/ritual modes emerges as a transcendental phenomenon irreducible to worldly relations of substitution, which are in Peirce’s terms indexical rather than symbolic. The originary hypothesis is situated on the cusp between the world of “nature” and the human one of representational culture; its empirical plausibility is subordinate to and in fact dependent on its value as a heuristic or “paradigm” that offers a plausible explanation of the human-cultural phenomena it addresses. In a heuristic, as opposed to a quantitative model, the advantage of parsimony is intuitively obvious; it is for those who would deny the common origin of (sacred) significance and (symbolic) signification to explain what advantage their separation offers to the historical analysis of their divergence.
2. Why, in contrast to postmodern “theory,” does GA lack drama, providing the reader with no narrative role, no imperative with which to identify?
Minimalist anthropology shares the common task of all culture, which is to de-dramatize the world’s dramas before their bloody dénouement, but its mode of operation is cognitive rather than esthetic; it is minimally dramatic. The postmodern Western intelligentsia remains dominated by the political “drama” of identifying with the victimary forces in their revolt against authority, as if expiating the moral horrors revealed by WWII. All postmodern thinkers act out the same revolt: the center exercises an illegitimate hegemony that victimizes the periphery and must therefore be “deconstructed.” Author, Subject, Father, King, Phallus, God… are subjected to the same process of delegitimization. In the language of traditional ontology, it is Being itself that is delegitimized. One recalls the line from Anaximander that Heidegger discusses in Holzwege:
The “drama” or political agenda of postmodernism is opposed by that generally qualified as neoconservative, defined grosso modo as the affirmation of market society and of the human social order in general. A number of these Chronicles have taken neoconservative positions, including an exhortation to choose Bush over Kerry in the last US Presidential election. Yet in contrast with the intimate connection between postmodern victimary thought and the left-liberalism of the Western academy, no similar relationship holds between GA and neoconservative politics. The resurgence of conservative thought over the past 30-odd years is unconcerned with originary anthropology except insofar as it is implicit in conservative respect for religion. Perhaps in reaction to the insistent secularism of the left, neoconservative writings often fall back on religious conceptions of the human and even flirt with the “theory” of Intelligent Design. Whereas victimary thinking is founded on an originary model, however crude, of human interaction, neoconservatism is a practical movement with little patience for theoretical models not conducive to political action. Another way to put this is that victimary thinking appeals to systematic thinkers (like the philosophes or Marx), whose raison-d’être is the superiority of intellect over reality, whereas neoconservatism appeals to pragmatic thinkers (like Burke or Hayek) who subordinate intellectual parsimony to the common sense learned from history. The idea, fundamental to originary thinking, that historically grounded common sense is itself founded on intellectual parsimony consequently appeals to neither group.
The principle of political philosophy implicit in the originary hypothesis is the primacy of reciprocal exchange. What then does originary thinking reject in victimary thinking’s universal application of the Auschwitz paradigm? Certainly we cannot object to the abolition of de jure social distinctions that was the accomplishment of the first phase of the postwar era. If morality is reciprocity, then the only excuse for hierarchy is to facilitate reciprocity, on the model of the apprenticeship of children to adults. Whatever the intention behind it, maintaining similar tutelage over adults of other cultures cannot be defended without denying the ultimate unity of the human. But every structure of reciprocity is built upon firstness. From the originary scene on, someone must always go first; and the advantage gained thereby is not immoral if it contributes to greater reciprocity in the long run. Because the radical form of victimary thinking that I call white guilt sees firstness as in principle illegitimate, it often proposes remedies–such as “affirmative action”–that generate more resentment than they allay.
3. Given my frequent espousal of (neo)conservative positions, do I consider these to be deducible from GA? Does the presence of firstness in the generative model of reciprocal morality put GA “on the Right”?
Only to the extent that today the attack upon the firstness of Western society from the “liberal” left poses a more urgent problem that the attack on its egalitarianism from the “paleoconservative” right. Although I respect John Rawls’s attempt to construct a model of the just society (see Chronicle 322), this model ignores both the fundamental danger to the social order from the resentment it generates and the dynamic nature of the exchange system by means of which this resentment is “recycled.” Rawls’s model of justice is entirely distributional; both one’s original endowment of “primary goods” and one’s opportunity for fulfilling one’s “plan of life” belong to the members of society as individuals rather than as participants in a system. Rawls’s references to community (a word not in his index) refer to “shared final ends” rather than to a genuinely interactive process. In Rawls’s vision of the just society, each person’s career is determined by his capital on entry and the realization of the opportunities it permits, as though society were an aggregate of people with varying fortunes each playing a slot machine with a personalized set of odds.
Given the imperative of promoting reciprocal exchange, the goal of political decisions is to determine the optimal degree of firstness conducive to the maximization of reciprocity over a term dependent on the human life-span. (It is much easier to accept the advantages of others when you have reason to hope that you or at any rate your children have some likelihood of equaling them.) The failure of socialism, not merely in tyrannical, inefficient Soviet-bloc communism but even in the benign communal environment of the Israeli kibbutz, where the absence of salary differentials generates widespread resentment among the more productive, illustrates the necessity of incentives. The left-right political alternation of modern market societies reflects their need to recalibrate these incentives at regular intervals. Today Western Europe finally appears to be realizing that its systems are excessively socialistic, but we should not forget that the social-welfare orientation of these systems was itself a reaction, beginning in the Bismarckian era, to the excesses of inequality under early capitalism. Nor should these “excesses” be understood in a retroactively moralistic manner; to kick off modern industrial society, 19th-century misery was no doubt inevitable; to this misery, welfare-state social democracy was among the least disastrous 20th-century reactions. If the model of moral reciprocity obliges us to condemn the inequalities of past times, we should not forget that it is the accomplishment of those times to have made possible a functioning society that dispenses with their inequalities.
There are points in time, however, when political judgments acquire the status of moral imperatives and create historical watersheds. “Auschwitz” is one such moment, with vast consequences for political systems everywhere; September 11 is another. It is easier to see such watersheds in retrospect, but just as Nazi gas chambers cannot be defended in any ethical context, neither can Islamist suicide bombings–even if more than a few people on “our” side like to think of September 11 as a justified consequence of our own policies.
Today the extreme form of white guilt that thinks we have to “understand” even the vilest forms of hatred is but a stone’s throw from the mainstream of the American left. What originary thinking adds to the visceral conviction that we must defend our own way of life both for our own and for everyone’s sake is its emphasis on the fundamental necessity of exchange. Although there is room for differences of opinion as to what inequalities in wealth and income must be borne in order to maintain the market exchange system, those on the left in a democratic polity cannot afford to lose sight of the prior need to defend the system itself from its enemies.
To sum up my answer to Chris’s final query, I think the scenic model of the originary hypothesis gives Generative Anthropology more than any other mode of thinking a justified claim to call itself a philosophy not of the right but of the center. Although this center is well to the right of today’s intellectual class, if the rightward trend of American politics continues, there may well be a time when GA will fall to the left of public opinion–perhaps even of the next generation of academic intellectuals.
A moral rule of thumb is to make it one’s priority to combat the most virulent forms of hostility to the firstness that contributes to exchange: antisemitism and anti-Americanism, today so often tellingly combined. Today Jewish and American firstness are attacked for conferring political and economic privilege; not long ago, Jews were accused of “mongrelizing” natural hierarchy and Americans for spreading egalitarian vulgarity. The mature political view suggested by the originary hypothesis is one that learns to value the promise of future reciprocity over vengeance for present difference.