The just-concluded GA Summer Conference at the University of Ottawa was the most significant public event in the world of GA since I began developing these ideas in 1978, over thirty years ago.
The conference, organized by two Anthropoetics authors, Ian Dennis assisted by Amir Khan, brought together nearly forty speakers from Canada, the US, Europe, and Australia. The atmosphere was cordial and intellectually challenging throughout. Ian had assiduously contacted all the Anthropoetics contributors he could find, and nearly all the regulars and a good number of one-time contributors were there. Some of the speakers were old friends whom I hadn’t seen in years; others I had known only by correspondence. A sizable group was made up of graduate students from Ottawa and nearby universities, all of whose papers were of scholarly quality, and a number of which made real use of originary thinking. For the first time, the foundations of GA were taken as a normal working presupposition by more than a small core of GA practitioners. The receptivity of both participants and audience gave me some hope that these ideas would survive and perhaps one day enter the mainstream.
Unlike all the successful critical movements of the present generation, GA has no victimary clientele. It is understandable that those with victimary credentials prefer to use them to advantage by participating in the critical mainstream. Collective resentment remains the privileged discovery procedure in the humanities, and those who are not born into an appropriate collective are encouraged to attach themselves to one. But as with any mode of thought in a free society, years of success have made victimary thinking more nuanced and open to external influence. Thus none of the women who participated in the conference expressed the kind of feminist objections to GA often vehemently raised twenty years ago: that the originary event involves only men, that it privileges male violence over female nurturing, that it justifies the “patriarchy” and leaves no place for an Urmatriarchy…. That GA’s fundamental conceptions are no longer found offensive despite their focus on originary equality rather than intergroup domination suggests that victimary thought, without renouncing its advantages, is ready to accept inclusion within a broader framework of the sort I attempted to sketch in my talk (published as Chronicle 375). I will reserve discussion of the political implications of this development for another occasion (but see Adam Katz’s entry in the GABlog at http://dev.cdh.ucla.edu/GABlog/2009/06/the-holy-grammar-of-presence/ .)
No doubt the model of the originary hypothesis is not easily applicable to all the works of culture, and the paradigms of “esthetic history” provided in Originary Thinking hardly cover the whole terrain. But the point of a minimal hypothesis is not merely to leave room for others to develop the theory itself, but to serve as a basis for a multiplicity of theoretical universes that need not consider themselves “derivations” of GA. The minimally incarnated hypothetical event inserts itself between empirical science and religious intuition as a fundamental understanding of the human that both the humanities and the social sciences can take as a point of reference. Even where return to the origin may not be necessary, it is essential that such a return always remain a possibility as a means of testing foundational hypotheses.
The firstness of a religious revelation is explicitly that of a historical contingency; however “abstract” a religion, and the figureless and nameless Hebrew God is no doubt the most powerful example of such abstraction, its historical emergence is by definition a revelatory event whose reality qua event is indispensable. (This fact itself suggests at the very least that we cannot conceive our emergence otherwise than as an event, although certain religions attempt to minimize the violence of this founding event.) The originary hypothesis, in contrast, is intended to concentrate the imagination on itself only for the purpose of facilitating its transfer to other subjects at hand. The hypothesis is not proposed in view of future empirical (dis)confirmation, but as a heuristic point of departure. No doubt the scientist will yearn for a truly “scientific” hypothesis that does away with events altogether, but this is not possible for all the reasons GA has alleged. It would be suspicious, indeed paradoxical, if the subject whose transcendent status allows it to create the sciences of the material world were able to establish its own beginning by means of the same techniques by which it studies the genesis of non-human phenomena.
This paradox is expressed in various ways by those who dissent from normal natural science—for example, by the advocates of the doctrine of Intelligent Design. I have admitted to a “grain of sympathy” for Creationism, which adverts explicitly to religious sources in rejecting the possibility of a “Darwinian” explanation of the human. No doubt Creationism is naïve in extrapolating from the impossibility of fully accounting for the human in evolutionary terms to the assertion that the theory of evolution simply does not apply to the human, let alone to other living creatures. But this very naivety keeps the emphasis on the need to supplement Darwinism’s inadequacy rather than on the presumed limits of the scientific method as such. In contrast, Intelligent Design claims that certain aspects of life are simply too complex to have emerged in the course of the Earth’s history otherwise than through creation by an “intelligent being.” In the absence of any concrete hypothesis concerning a natural such being, ID’s conclusory appeal to a deus ex machina explains no more than the statement that these aspects have not (yet) been explained. This procedure, antipodal to scientific parsimony, is disguised in the terminology of natural science. I mention it here merely as confirmation of the paradoxical origin of the human that cannot be thought without an originary hypothesis of some kind. No doubt Creationism too does not single out the creation of man as its central focus, but the Genesis story describes the creation of man (and woman) “in God’s image” as the final achievement and narrative telos of the creation, whereas the genetic operations alleged to require a creator by ID have no specific relationship with the human at all.
One common objection to the originary hypothesis is that it fails to take into account the latest scientific discoveries in animal behavior, or the paleontology of early hominids, or the neurological operations of the brain… In the first place, all the scientific advances I am aware of since 1981, when I published The Origin of Language, have only confirmed my claims about the uniqueness of human language (which was not so obvious at the time) and the consequent differences in the way that humans and animals think (see, for example, Richard van Oort’s “Imitation and Human Ontogeny” on Tomasello’s comparative studies of chimpanzee and human children). Back in 1981, teaching human language to chimps was all the rage, the purpose being to show that the two species weren’t “really” all that different. In other words, my a priori notion of human specificity has proved to be more plausible than the zero hypotheses promoted by the scientists themselves.
But my essential point is independent of these confirmations. It is that anthropology in the broadest sense of human thinking about the human cannot wait for the endlessly receding moment in which science will finally have enough facts at its disposal to create the definitive hypothesis (or “paradigm”) of human origin. Not only is such a moment not on the horizon, but there is no logical reason to assume it can exist. Absent some kind of laboratory reconstruction, the emergent phenomena of representation that define the human cannot be understood without reference to hypothetical scenic events. Human culture to this day is punctuated by such events, which form the heart of what we call “culture,” whether they be plays, concerts, dances, feasts, festivals, sports events, religious services, or what have you. Yet there is no presently conceivable way for empirical science to discover the originary model of the scenic event.
In short, the originary hypothesis is the only non-religious explanation available for the emergence of the phenomenon that defines the human. This being understood, whether GA be considered “scientific” or “unscientific” is a matter of arbitrary decision. The hypothesis is unnecessary for the empirical investigation of human phenomena, but the underlying intuition that is able to identify them as human phenomena can be explained only by the originary hypothesis or its equivalent. The fact that this hypothesis is not part of “natural science” as it is normally conceived is precisely what makes it the basis of a fundamental, generative anthropology.
To treat human activity as a set of natural processes can no doubt obtain results in specific areas; the operations involved in graphing height and weight distributions or testing a cure for a disease are the same for humans as for animals (although human knowledge of what drugs do must be distinguished from animal “conditioned reflexes”). But when the “science of the human” deals with the cultural aspect of humanity from language on up, in the absence of a theory of origin of its own, it cannot explain the religious and fictional “myths of origin” it encounters except as products of a (perhaps “adaptive”) delusion common to all but the enlightened few. Such analysis situates the scientific mind in a transcendent position with respect to its cultural subject matter, as though the transition between the primitive-cultural and the modern-scientific were more significant than that between the animal and the human. This remains true for “multicultural” studies that present the myths and customs of tribal societies with great sympathy as constituting a cultural whole fully comparable to, and perhaps more coherent than, our own. For the description of the whole remains the transcendent, “etic” one of the scientific observer.
Would it not be possible, one might ask, to explain culture just as GA does, as “the deferral of violence through representation,” but without an originary scene? This would be to accept the doxa of the social sciences in assuming that language and other cultural institutions arose gradually. It would still take us beyond Girard’s “mimetic theory,” which lacks a theory of representation. But when in this gradual emergence would the scenic event characteristic of human culture first appear? Once we admit that such events are the fundamental moments of culture, we are obliged to accept a first one, since by definition events are punctual and defined as such for their participants. If language did not emerge in the first such event, it would have to emerge separately. This would hardly be parsimonious; humans would then have language and culture. And how could a set of non-instinctual signs become accepted by a community in the absence of a communal scene? The use of language as well as other forms of representation in the scenic events of culture suggests a single origin that would make unnecessary a separate derivation of language itself.
Because the principles of GA are not wholly empirical, it may be thought of as belonging to “philosophical” or “speculative” anthropology rather than as a branch of the social sciences. But it does not share the incompleteness, not to say naivety, of philosophy. The philosopher uses language without ever telling us where it comes from, speaks of “ideas” or of “being” as though by analyzing words and the propositions that contain them he can understand the ultimate constituents of the (human) universe. The originary hypothesis minimally grounds the necessary incompleteness of philosophy/metaphysics in the prehuman world.
In contrast, those total “philosophies” known as religions are complete systems that define a transcendent source from which the human has sprung, language and all. For the sake of completeness, religion admits supernatural beings incompatible with natural science, that can be known only through faith. I hesitate to put it in these terms, but GA may be thought of as a minimal religion, requiring a minimal “act of faith” in the originary hypothesis, which merely accounts for the obvious, that the human emerged at some point from the non-human.
Our fundamental moral intuition too is an object of faith. What explains that we all feel that “all men are created equal” and resent any indication that some are more equal than we? Is it enough to speak of this feeling as an adaptive trait, like the opposable thumb? Religion presents the law of moral reciprocity in various forms as a divine precept. Philosophy either postulates it as a law of “reason” (Kant) or attempts to derive it from a symmetrical thought-experiment (Rawls). GA’s scenic heuristic is more parsimonious than either religious doctrine or moral philosophy. The scene of language as a scene of reciprocal exchange is not a speculative construction but a configuration that we all experience daily, resenting those moments when we feel excluded or neglected.
Unlike philosophy or transcendental religion, GA is self-contained; it explains language, morality, and all other characteristically human phenomena from within itself. This does not mean that GA offers some magical solution to humanity’s concrete problems, either those of scholarship or those, more intractable, of social organization. Its claim is simply that for the sake of human self-understanding it is preferable to begin from a explicit, minimal heuristic than from either a dogma or a set of half-conscious assumptions.
But GA’s claim, however plausible, cannot be demonstrated in the abstract. The study of the human is a pragmatic enterprise—the ultimate pragmatic enterprise. I am happy to say that the Ottawa conference offers some hope that GA will have access to the time and intellectual energy to be able to justify its claim in practice.