Last week’s column on falsification touched on the subject of minimalism, or Ockham’s razor. In the realm of hard science, there is a trade-off between minimalism and falsification, simplicity and closeness of fit. Although it is pragmatically useful to assume that nature does things simply, we have no intrinsic reason to believe so. In contrast, in the domain of human self-reflection, where the object of thinking is thought itself, minimalism is tempered only by plausibility. If I can show a relationship between ideas, the simplicity of my explanation is central to its truth. The more minimal my explanation, the more truthful it is.
To translate the logical coherence of a system of ideas into a vision of history is a Hegelian mode of thought. The anti-Hegelian empiricism that has dominated our century has little to its credit on the anthropological front. Great progress has been made in understanding natural processes, but little in understanding our most deeply characteristic activities. There is even a widespread feeling that this goal itself is inappropriate; that each culture is a separate entity with its own values and that any attempt to impose a global theory smacks of Western imperialism.
Hegel‘s system lacks scientific credibility for the same reason that religious anthropologies do: for its lack of care in distinguishing between the anthropological and the natural. It is one thing to describe human history, including that of art, religion, and politics as a dialectic of ideas; it is another to describe the physical universe in terms of Being and Becoming. Hegel’s Idealism has not yet thrown off the originary anthropomorphism that metaphysics inherited from religious thought. But where religion insists on the divine revelation that alone can ground its anthropology, metaphysics thinks it can avoid the overt paradox of revelation by eliminating the historic specificity of human origin in favor of Plato’s Ideas or Kant’s Reason. Philosophy is an anthropology that has sacrificed this specificity in exchange for the ability to reason from abstract postulates rather than revealed truths. Modern analytic philosophy in rejecting anthropomorphism sacrifices the human altogether, although it has recovered some of it through “ordinary language.” And the poster/whipping boy for what it has sacrificed is Hegel; history’s most powerful ratiocinator is reduced to a figure of fun.
But as the old master knew, intellectual history is dialectical; theses are replaced by antitheses and then by antitheses of the former antitheses, moving ever nearer the truth. If the nineteenth century erred by excess of systematic confidence, the twentieth has been characterized by an inordinate fear of the human universal. It is indeed possible to construct a minimal anthropology that can thematize the open-ended productivity of our manipulation of representations without pretending to anticipate its course. As my article in the second issue of Anthropoetics attempted to show, mimesis is the basis for minimal thinking about the human because it is the source of the paradox that makes us human.
Our century’s empiricist particularism has allowed us to brush aside until now the mimetic themes that nineteenth-century writers like Baudelaire and Dostoevsky developed so acutely in favor of an anthropology concentrated on the individual that confines interaction to the margin. We speak of our intelligence, even of our language, as though they were primarily directed to the natural world and only incidentally involved in human relations. But whatever else is included in intelligence, it centrally includes the capacity to learn from another’s example. A student learns by reproducing in his mind structures of understanding learned from other human beings, whether present teachers or absent authors.
But our mimetic capacity cannot be limited to the behaviors our model wants us to imitate. You are happy when I learn by your example, but if I learn so well that I can replace you, I become a threat. In learning to perform a task, I learn its goal; but by sharing your goal, I become your rival. The fact that the vast majority of our intelligentsia resist these obvious truths is testimony to their radical power. People would far rather believe that they want to sleep with their mother and kill their father than admit that their desire imitates the desire of others and that their resentment of these others is the real source of their aggression. By keeping these passions in the family, the Freudian system softens their impact. I hate X because he reminds me of my father, not because I have secretly tried and failed to imitate his mastery.
It is to Girard that we owe these insights; yet he neglects the quality of human mimesis that separates us from the higher animals: mimesis is not merely imitation, it is representation. I don’t just imitate you, I represent the object we both desire. Human beings imitate each other so well that they have devised in language a means for multiplying through imitation the objects on which their desires converge. Animals use signals, and can even be taught to use human signs, but they cannot understand the originary purpose of the sign as a replacement for an object made sacred by desire. (Or perhaps experimenters can teach religion to chimpanzees.)
Mimesis is a minimal function because it has no content in itself; unlike Freud’s Oedipus complex, mimetic desire is defined not by its objects, but by the increasing undefinition of these objects. The circulation of desire, enhanced by the mechanisms of material exchange, is the true motor of history, the generating force of all the complexity of human culture. Through this mechanism, the material world is turned into an ensemble of signs. Generative anthropology has nothing to say about the material world in itself, but the signs we make of it embody meanings that can be traced to their source in the originary scene.
There are good heuristic reasons for rejecting this view. The difference between deconstruction and GA in practice is that the former reduces all texts to the same phallogocentric paradigm, whereas GA constructs the historical specificity of both institutions and texts. But heuristics aside, I have no quarrel with the idea that presence is always a myth, that there is no Event of origin. Let us call it rather a scene. The scene is always conceptual rather than real, even at the moment in which it occurs. GA does not postulate that there once occurred a sacred moment henceforth ever remembered in a profane world. Every moment is profane in itself, yet sacred and revelatory in the universe of meaning–every use of language repeats the paradox of the originary scene. The originary event is supplementary to itself; everything we imagine through language is always already a construction rather than reality itself, for reality itself, as soon as we think it, is itself a construction of language.
It is not GA but deconstruction that is naive in thinking that it is meaningful to deny the reality of events because they are never truly the events we think them to be. It is the child, or the Romantic, who denies reality because it fails to correspond to the Ideal. The adult is the one who understands that reality is the source of the Ideal that we pose as its horizon, of the language that transcends reality. This is a paradox that religious thinkers prefer to leave in the hands of God, but that mature human beings should be able to face with the help of a truly mature form of thought.