Because “Anglo-Saxon” analytic philosophy, even when it strays from logic to “ordinary language” and the linguistic pragmatics of Austin and his school, is fundamentally unconcerned with the anthropological genesis of the linguistic phenomena it examines, generative anthropology has no direct means of entering into dialogue with it. The same is true of linguistics, for which the derivation, however plausible, of the declarative from the imperative and ostensive is of no practical interest, since even its notion of diachrony concerns only mature language.
GA’s roots are elsewhere, in post-Kantian “Continental” thought and its critique of metaphysics. (Hegel’s philosophy, the culmination of the metaphysical tradition, is also its reductio ad absurdum, since only the Absolute Spirit would be capable of evaluating the parsimoniousness of Hegel’s categories.) Prior to the postmodern era, the most radical form of this critique, which had dominated European thought since the last decades of the 19th century, was phenomenology, created by Edmond Husserl under the inspiration of Franz Brentano’s ideal of philosophy as an empirical science.
Phenomenology’s reproach to Kant and earlier metaphysics was that all “categories” had to be found within the experience of the subject, not imposed on it from without. Thus phenomenology rejects the appeal to transcendental beings or “imperatives”; it “brackets” the world outside the individual mind—what GA calls the internal scene of representation—in order to concern itself exclusively with phenomena, mental appearances, which are our only direct objects of experience. This respect for the integrity of the internal scene of representation makes phenomenology the first fully scenic way of thinking. But because phenomenology cannot speculate on what is outside this scene, it cannot formulate a hypothesis concerning the conditions of its own emergence, let alone conceive of the necessity of deriving the individual scene from an originary scene.
Phenomenology as practiced in the 20th century did not remain limited by the procedural rigor of Husserl’s original project. With Heidegger, it became a discovery procedure for ontology, as the subtitle of Sartre’s L’être et le néant (1943), “essai d’ontologie phénoménologique,” would make explicit. Phenomenological ontology takes phenomenal appearance on the subject’s internal scene of representation as our source not merely of knowledge of worldly beings but of knowledge of Being itself, and of the human in its “opening” to Being—domains that lay beyond the epistemological reach of phenomenology as originally conceived.
Phenomenology’s rejection of Kant’s still-Platonic thing-in-itself makes us responsible for constructing our own ontology. Yet in the absence of a notion of human language as an emanation of the human community, we discover this ontology by using the unexplained given of metaphysics, the declarative sentence or proposition, to reason about the contents of our individual minds. Thus the overthrow of (Kantian) metaphysics is carried out via (post-Kantian) metaphysics. The continental tradition that goes from Kant to phenomenology and Existentialism without passing through Frege and Russell has nothing to say about language; the word does not even appear in the analytic index of Husserl’s Ideen. Sartre, like Heidegger and Husserl before him, speaks of ideas and themes of consciousness without ever referring to language.
Language does not concern the phenomenological ontologist because, despite the contortions of some Chomskians, language cannot be understood as the creation of a single mind. It is an aspect of our “thrownness” that we come into a world of language that we can only adopt, not invent. The error of Existentialism is to take thrownness as ontologically prior to the language that demonstrates it, as though the human sense of lateness were not necessarily mediated by language. Yet, in contrast with the metaphorical concreteness of Heidegger’s category of Dasein (“being there”), which substitutes as it were for an anthropological hypothesis, the abstraction of Sartre’s néant places it clearly within the world of signs.
Husserl’s world of noesis and noema, bracketing and reduction, has no term like le néant. Rather than a phenomenon accessible to consciousness or even a “ground” of experience, the néant is a linguistic construct that founds the freedom of the subject on the intrinsically human capacity of negation. Sartre never concerns himself with the fact that negation depends on language and that language in turn is the product of a communal configuration or scene. From the originary perspective, the néant is a figure of the untraversable space that separates the users of the sign from the sacred central object.
For Sartre, the néant takes the place of the logos in Aristotle’s definition of the human as zoon logon exon (animal having speech/reason). It intervenes between the subject and the object that he “intends,” allowing him to examine it as it were through a pane of one-way glass. The disembodied néant embodies the freedom of the human subject, which he is always in danger of dishonoring through bad faith, which falsely claims to find in the physical world (the en-soi) transcendent limitations on his freedom. The Occupation scenario of the resistant who betrays his comrades under torture is the implicit model for the mauvaise foi of the Sartrian salaud.
Sartre demonstrates through a long and subtle argument that the néant is not the originary chaos whence Being emerges but a posterior negation of being. Such negation cannot be effectuated by being-in-itself, the en-soi:
L’Etre par qui le Néant arrive dans le monde est un être en qui, dans son Etre, il est question du Néant de son Etre: l’être par qui le Néant vient au monde doit être son propre Néant. (L’être et le néant 59 – emphasis the author’s)
The Being through which Nothingness comes into the world is a being in which, in its Being, it is a matter of the Nothingness of its Being: the being by which Nothingness enters the world must be its own Nothingness.
This being, needless to say, is Dasein, human being-there, but Sartre’s Nothingness is not Heideggerian being-toward-death but a more fundamental source of liberation from being-in-itself. Sartre understands that the Nothingness within the human is more fundamental than its eventual mortality; it is the foundation of what we call scenicity. Sartre’s point in defining the human through negation is that although an animal can lack something, only a human can thematize an absence; we come to the rendezvous, and Pierre is not there. But what is this mysterious ability if not, very simply, the ability to represent reality in signs, so that we can represent Pierre’s presence and then become aware that this representation does not correspond to the situation at hand. From the originary perspective, only humans use negation because only humans use language, and as Sartre intuits, language “negates” prior to any concept or sign of negation. The néant is originary: the sign designates its referent as absolutely other, inaccessible from within the “horizontal” world of appetite that Sartre calls the en-soi. The object of Sartre’s description is in fact the individual human mind as constituted by humanity’s collective emergence.
But for Sartre as for any thinker in the Western philosophical/metaphysical tradition, to construct an anthropological hypothesis for the genesis of nothingness would be to commit the primal category error of subordinating the ontological to the “ontic,” attempting to understand Being on the basis of beings rather than the other way around.
When Sartre affirms that:
C’est la possibilité permanente de non-être, hors de nous et en nous, qui conditionne nos questions sur l’être. Et c’est encore le non-être qui va circonscrire la réponse: ce que l’être sera s’enlèvera nécessairement sur le fond de ce qu’il n’est pas. Quelle que soit cette réponse, elle pourra se formuler ainsi: “L’être est cela et, en dehors de cela, rien.” (40)
It is the permanent possibility of non-being, outside of us and in us, that conditions our questions about being. And it is once again non-being that will circumscribe the answer: what being will be will necessarily be set off on a background of what it is not. Whatever the answer may be, it can be formulated thus: “Being is this and, outside of this, nothing.”
we are reminded of the emergence of the first sign in the originary event; the sign designates-as-significant this and, outside of it, nothing. But these categories are not found in a speculative-intuitive journey through being and non-being. None of the value of Sartre’s intuition of being-for-itself surrounded by nothingness is lost if we translate it into the language of originary anthropology; on the contrary, we gain not simply in clarity but in our understanding of the communal nature of the human. It is not I alone who “interrogate being” and surely not “being” that provides the answer. We set off the significant on a background of insignificance because the absolute separation between the significant and the merely appetitively interesting is the foundation of both human language and the human social order. Sartre’s ontological nothingness surrounding the central object is a phenomenological translation of the infinite intentional space that separates the aborted gesture of appropriation from its sacred/significant/transcendental referent.
Although the phenomenological attitude remains even today the ground, often unrealized, of the Western intellectual’s reflection as he confronts the world in medias res, for the past forty-odd years the phenomenological attitude has been under attack by the various strands of postmodern “French theory.” These approaches are fundamentally hermeneutic: rather than offering an ontology of their own, they seek hidden inconsistencies in the ontological presuppositions of phenomenology and of metaphysical discourse in general, which they conceive as centrally dependent on the individual subjective intuition isolated by phenomenology.
Postmodernism rejects the claimed “purity” of the phenomenological intuition. In La voix et le phénomène (1967), Derrida showed the unexamined presupposition of phenomenology to be the speaking subject’s self-presence in his voice; this deconstruction of the linguistic subject was subsequently extended to the whole metaphysical-religious universe of “(phal)logocentrism.” Deconstruction shows that the phenomenological subject is not alone with the object he “intends”; his experience is in fact mediated by language. Yet instead of seeking the ground of both language and phenomenological intuition in the human community, deconstruction limits itself to demonstrating the dependence of the (metaphysical, religious, ideological) discourse guaranteed by this intuition on the philosophical original sin, the usurpation of the sacred center of the scene of representation by the Subject of metaphysics, which parallels the “big-man”‘s similar usurpation in the politico-economic sphere. Derrida shows that the “pure” self-presence of the Subject is in fact mediated by différance, the deferral/difference within the sign itself, which he attributes to its dependence on a paradigm of differences.
Properly understood, Derrida’s deconstructive hermeneutic is a mode of originary analysis. Students of originary anthropology know that what is generated by the deferral/differentiation of the originary sign is not the specific signification that depends on differing from the other members of a paradigm but the sacred significance that depends on deferring the violence attendant on the appropriation of the central object. Significance is deferral; in order for the sign to signify, it must defer its referent’s presence to its potential appropriators by re-presenting it as transcendent, sacred. Appropriation is horizontal; signification is vertical.
By showing the dependence of metaphysical discourse on its Subject’s usurpation of the sacred center, deconstruction provides the moral ground of postmodern victimary thought. The familiar Subject-Other asymmetries of gender, class, race, and so on—the very asymmetries that the Holocaust made henceforth intolerable—derive from this originary usurpation. Conceived in the moral horror of non-reciprocity, postmodern thought is uninterested in recognizing the progress in moral understanding realized in metaphysical and particularly religious thought. No doubt the “phallogocentric” Subject presumes to speak in the name of God. Yet history’s great revelations are embodied in the relationship between God and Man. The most significant of these is no doubt God’s revelation to Moses in Exodus 3 that he can be named only by the declarative sentence ehyeh asher ehyeh. The men who presumed to speak in the name of God in composing the Torah were well aware that the originary source of their discourse cannot be addressed by name, that he is not a reciprocal participant in the scene of language. They “usurp” his presence only to defer it, a deferral that is the distant but necessary source of both Derrida’s différance and GA’s anthropological rereading of it.
Deconstruction’s radical critique of phenomenological intuition is a step toward GA’s yet more radical critique, which hypothesizes an anthropological origin for the scenic configuration presupposed yet denied by deconstruction. The originary foundation of the discursive Subject, prior to the metaphysical usurpation of the center, is the reciprocal exchange of signs in the originary event. This exchange situates the common human condition prior to asymmetric difference and provides the basis for both the moral criticism and the ethical justification of specific differences. The binary oppositions of victimary discourse can be transcended only by putting Derrida’s insights into the concrete anthropological context of the originary event. Our increasingly global society demands nothing less.
My experience in a department of French and Francophone Studies leads me to propose the current trend of “post-colonial” cultural studies as one potential “objective correlative” of this process of transcendence. Beyond deconstructing the colonial Subject, the political aim that subtends these analyses is to constitute a new, post-colonial Subject no longer defined by resentment of its former colonizer but reconciled to the objective reality of Western firstness, and that takes as its urgent task the acquisition of the advantages of modern liberal democracy. Hopefully the post-colonial world will focus its energies on this goal rather than seeking to profit from the new opportunities for victimary blackmail opened up by the West’s eagerness to blame itself for “global warming.” In global as in individual affairs, progress is made by the transcendence, not the indulgence, of resentment.