Since GA contains the term “anthropology,” it is often asked in what sense we can call GA a “science.” As was made clear by a show of hands at the recent Ottawa conference, those who take an interest in GA are almost exclusively humanists, particularly literary humanists. Thus the chief organizers of all three of these summer conferences, Andrew Bartlett, Matt Schneider, and Ian Dennis, are professors of English, and next year’s conference in Utah will be run by professors of English (Peter Goldman) and French (Bob Hudson).
As the Marxists (the German ones, anyway) used to say, “there is no Chinese Wall” between science and the Humanities, but there is certainly a difference of mindset, one that makes GA’s “new way of thinking” uncongenial to those trained in anthropology and the other social sciences. Because GA focuses on the quasi-empirical issue of the origin of language, it cannot remain indifferent to new developments in cognitive science, neuroscience, ethology, and so on. Some of us, Richard van Oort in particular, have shown quite persuasively that GA is not only fully compatible with the advances in these sciences but often anticipates them on the basis of its more powerful originary model of the human.
To the extent that GA is indeed a science, it must be continually updated as new information concerning human evolution in its various aspects becomes available. But the essential, minimal kernel of GA is and will always remain a hypothetical heuristic, situated beyond the possibility of falsification by empirical data. We may call this affirmation of the freedom of the anthropological from the empirical a Humanist Declaration of Independence.
As a field of study, the Humanities are not characterized by a well-defined philosophy or, as I prefer to put it, anthropology. The beauty of the Humanities is that they study beauty itself; when we teach courses on Shakespeare, Mozart, or Michelangelo, the students’ contact with the subject matter trumps any interpretation we may choose to offer them. The Humanities study representations, or as we tend to logocentrize them, texts, which, at least in principle, bear their value in the experience they provoke in us independently of institutional coercion. The realm of secular art since Homer has liberated itself from the sacred on the anthropological ground that the sacred is an effect that the artist can reproduce, make “portable” outside of a ritual setting. Art’s independence has often been compromised in the victimary era (and earlier, more brutally, in fascist art and “socialist realism”) by social pressure to affirm the significance of works of dubious esthetic quality, undermining the self-evidence that is at the heart of the esthetic project since Homer. Yet for the moment, and perhaps forever, the esthetic survives.
The other great Western textual enterprise is that of philosophy/metaphysics, which shares art’s ambition to take the place of the sacred, not by reproducing its effect, but by explaining it in “rational” terms, translating the ostensive truth of the originary event into propositions more or less rigorously linked in deductive chains. Philosophy is capable of dealing with ideas only once the possibility of ideation, the creation of truth-bearing propositions, has been accepted. Ever since Parmenides, the realm of Being as defined by propositional language rather than ostensive revelation has been the guarantee of philosophical thought. The contemporary reader is struck by the blitheness with which the most sophisticated thinkers of the recent past, not only Kant and Hegel, but also Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, take the possibility of (mature human) language for granted. Yet the analytic philosophy of Frege, Russell and their heirs, which deals with the details of the linguistic formulation of ideas, is equally indifferent to the anthropological basis of language, which it conceives as a formal system independent of its human implementation. Even when, as with the later Wittgenstein and especially Austin, analytic philosophy stumbles on clearly anthropological material such as marriages, baptisms, and promises, it never doubts that exploratory empiricism provides sufficient basis for its theoretical models.
The first postmodern inroads into this propositional security came in the guise not of a humanistic anthropology but a critique of “(phal)logocentrism.” Techniques of close reading that had been applied to Judeo-Christian scripture, as well as to literary texts beginning with Homer, in order to seek out the originary ostensive motivation behind the text (a technique that Girard radicalizes as the search for the real murder behind the myth), become “deconstructive” when applied to the texts of metaphysics. Deconstruction shows these supposedly self-contained discourses to be grounded on the implicit ostensive fiction of (self)-presence constitutive of the Subject of Western thought. The burden of Derrida’s masterwork, De la grammatologie, is to demonstrate that this same fiction applies to the chains of propositions that make up the texts of the social sciences: Plato, Rousseau, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, même combat.
The ideological motivation of deconstruction is to provide a basis for postmodern victimary thought, which interprets these texts as providing a spurious ideological justification for the domination of the “phallogocentric” Subject over its Other. By unveiling the unacknowledged ostensive basis of metaphysical texts, deconstruction, a mode of reflection originating in the Humanities, offers its victimary anthropology as the hidden basis of human science. By now even the humblest practitioners of the social sciences, such as may be found in Schools of Education, are quoting Derrida and Foucault.
The negativity of the deconstructive critique, of a piece with the often naive hostility to central authority characteristic of postmodern victimary thinking, should not mask its genuine anthropological significance. Deconstruction’s explicit reference to the originary ostensive-sacred dimension of the human, even if it be as a sinister fiction, is a major step toward originary thinking.
René Girard’s critique of desire, although indifferent to the question of language and far from having achieved the publicity level of the Parisian representatives of “French theory,” is very much a product of this same victimary mentality. But in Girard’s work, the centrality of the victim, understood from a Christian perspective as the bearer of the fundamental anthropological and sacred truth, becomes the source of a constructive anthropology. In retrospect, Girard’s indifference to the postmodern “linguistic turn” can be seen as a case of reculer pour mieux sauter. By distancing himself from the hypostasis of language as a means of discrediting the human subject—an enterprise whose strange complicity with apology for the perpetrators of the Holocaust was astutely pointed out by Tobin Siebers in “Mourning becomes Paul de Man” (in Cold War Criticism and the Politics of Skepticism, Oxford, 1993)—Girard uncovered the critical need to defer mimetically inspired violence that is the kernel of human culture. That he passed over the originary function of language in this operation is understandable, given “French theory’s” insistence on language as doing just the opposite. On this point, too, Siebers shows in The Ethics of Criticism (Cornell, 1988) how Derrida’s reading of Lévi-Strauss’ “writing lesson” in Tristes tropiques turns culture on its head by affirming that linguistic violence is more dangerous than physical violence.
What was needed was to bring together Girard’s constructive anthropology with a hypothesis about the anthropological underpinnings of the “logocentric subject” that went beyond the political silliness that so often accompanies victimary thought. If “(phal)logocentrism” is indeed an apology for the oppression of the “Other,” is it coeval with language or a later imposition on it? If the former, what makes its deconstruction on behalf of the excluded other possible? If the latter, what made possible its original corruption? The crudity of the implicit anthropology of “French theory,” founded on the binary paradigm of oppression that was the legacy, both empowering and stultifying, of Auschwitz to postmodern thought, stands in striking contrast to the subtlety of its textual analyses.
The sticking point of GA is that, unwilling either to await the always tentative conclusions of empirical science or to hide behind the infinite regress of epistemology, it constructs a positive hypothesis of the origin of the human. I prefer to call GA a “way of thinking” than to pigeonhole it into either “science” or “philosophy.” The originary hypothesis differs from a falsifiable scientific hypothesis in that its pretension at describing reality is uniquely justified by the speculative constructions of “originary analysis” that it makes possible. In this it resembles the discourse of philosophy, but its a priori is a singular event rather than a general condition of “the mind.” I have been tempted to call it a “minimal religion,” although as Richard van Oort recently put it, no one will find GA in a foxhole; religion cannot remain hypothetical. Yet religion offers a better model of GA than philosophy because it begins with an assertion about reality rather than an ungrounded set of “ideas.”
What justifies our declaring the independence of the human from empirical research into its origins is the intuitive evidence that the events and signs of human history have a common origin. Regardless of the specifics of the originary event, which the hypothesis strives to describe as parsimoniously as possible, the heuristic value of cutting the Gordian knot by positing the reality of such an event for the synthesis of the ever-expanding richness of human experience is not likely to be disturbed by a paleontological discovery. And even in the unlikely event that such a discovery will one day provide clear evidence of human origin in the strong sense in which GA defines it, this should not prevent us from building a theoretical edifice which, even if we must eventually tear it down, can bequeath many valuable elements to its successor.
Whatever the usefulness of associating human behavior with this or that biological imperative, it is the height of arrogance to designate as the behavior’s “real” causes factors invisible to the consciousness of the actors themselves. Culture is irreducible to biology. Even the most fanciful cultural explanations of human activity contain a degree of self-understanding, not merely personal but generic, that on the one hand, has roots in the originary event and on the other, can be shown to constitute a source of our own self-understanding.
We few, we band of siblings…
What have humanists to gain from this Declaration that would correspond to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” our “inalienable rights” to which are affirmed in the original?
It is easy to understand the success of victimary thought. It satisfies the resentment of the marked and the guilt of the unmarked—both of which may be combined in the same person. The latter atone for the Holocaust and the Western history that it brings to an apocalyptic culmination by attributing to the former the privilege of having escaped the sinfulness of the human condition. This moral privilege, which its recipients are understandably happy to accept in perpetuity, brings with it important material benefits whose motivational effect is particularly strong in the chronically overpopulated academic profession.
Although the world of GA is so far, and perhaps forever, uncorrupted by the material rewards of white guilt, the white males who make up the dominant majority of contributors to GA (the Ottawa conference suggests a movement toward greater gender balance) are not expressing the inverted resentment of “white studies.” The sole privilege to which they can lay claim is that of being less tempted by victimary thinking than those who profit directly or indirectly from it. Meanwhile, the heroic figures in the minority community, the Thomas Sowells and Shelby Steeles, who recognize this profit as the wage of condescension, have more urgent tasks to perform than concerning themselves with fundamental anthropology.
At present, the independent Humanities of originary anthropology is all but invisible in the shadow of victimary thought. Although for the foreseeable future the elimination of stereotypical differences will be a moral imperative of greater urgency than originary thinking, I think we can be confident that the postmodern era will end; resentment always wears out its welcome. Meanwhile, our task is to show that the understanding of human society and culture made possible by originary thinking is not only more subtle but ultimately more conducive to moral liberation than that grounded in victimary resentment, liberation from which Christianity set as its highest priority two millennia ago.