This Chronicle is a preliminary version of a paper to be delivered at a conference sponsored by Imitatio at Stanford in November. Readers are invited to comment either through the feedback function at the bottom of the page, on the GAlist, or by direct correspondence.
In today’s American universities the traditional liberal arts are in decline. The major system has always existed in tension with the notion of a humanistic or liberal arts education, but over the past forty years, the number of humanities majors has declined by half. In the current recession, many humanities vacancies are not being filled. In 2008-09, the MLA job list reported a 26% decline, the largest in 34 years, followed by a projected decline for 2009-10 of 27%, for a two-year total of nearly 46%, from 3506 jobs in 07-08 to a projected 1900 in 09-10—the lowest since record-keeping began in 1975-76. There is pressure at UCLA and elsewhere to combine language departments and reduce foreign language requirements. From the perspective of the Enlightenment project that Habermas and others would like us to “complete,” this might be taken as a sign of an ironic triumph of reason, as manifested in science and professional training, over the less rigorously rational practices associated with the humanities. [NB: A reader pointed out that Habermas’ notion of communicative rationality includes the “employments of reason in the social sciences and the humanities.” No doubt; but leaving aside the doubts often expressed as to the rigor of these “employments,” I rather think Habermas would agree that “communicative rationality,” translating know-how to know-that, is more consistently and rigorously exemplified in the business school than in the English department.]
A generation ago, the humanities entertained the illusion of a kind of Gnosticism, a humanistic science beyond reason. This was in reaction to what strikes us today as the scientistic optimism of the previous generation, which had conceived its task as creating, alongside the usual critical hermeneutic, what Barthes called a science de la littérature, integrating the humanities unproblematically within the Enlightenment project by extending to humanistic study the results of the “structuralist” project in the social sciences. This movement was attacked and marginalized by “post-structuralism” or “French theory” as it came to be understood in the US—a process in which René Girard, as the host to the celebrated “post-structuralist” conference at Hopkins in 1966, played a major historical role, although his own work was, I think happily, never incorporated into the core of “French theory.”
Jacques Derrida’s critique of the social sciences suggested that the human could not be grasped by the scientific method. As I have had occasion to point out, despite their metaphysical trappings, the insights of deconstruction are essentially anthropological and have particular relevance to GA. To give one well-worn example, Derrida’s notion of différance, which he interprets in terms of the “deferred” presence of the “differences” within a paradigm, may be interpreted more broadly and concretely—more mimetically—as the deferral of violence through the sign, whose minimal paradigm is the 1-0 binary of sacred and profane, that is, the one thing that is of overwhelming significance, and everything else. Indeed, in its extension of post-Nietzschean “existentialist” metaphysics into a fundamental critique of the established social sciences, including linguistics, and above all in its insistence on the ontological gap between natural science and the human, deconstruction entered a terrain normally reserved in our societies for religion. But although some of Derrida’s later works were reflections on the religious, I do not believe he ever clearly saw the connection between the anthropological and religious implications of deconstruction. In contrast, GA enters this terrain en connaissance de cause, its premise, acceptable in its general outline to “mimetic theory,” being that the fundamental role of religion is to defer mimetic violence and that in doing so it characteristically makes reference, via one or another genesis-story, to the historical memory of the event of human origin.
These are not new ideas, but in view of the current decline of the humanities, I think they take on a new dimension. GA’s evenemential hypothesis of the origin of the human, although in no way incompatible with the theory of evolution or natural science in general, goes against the grain of the limitations that the natural sciences have always placed on permissible discourse. When discussing human origins, scientists situate the empirical data at their disposition within a historical continuum that allows for extrapolation, but not for the hypothesis of an event of origin. As opposed to such things as geological catastrophes, events are artifacts of human culture about which, even in the presence of concrete evidence, we can only speculate. In contrast, the only explicit accounts of human origin generally available, the religious ones, tend to be relegated by scientists and humanists alike to the category of articles of faith, doubtless of great interest as historical-cultural artifacts (that is, as telling us “what people believed then”), but devoid of cognitive content.
I think the turning away from the humanities as no longer providing a practical basis for a career reflects the deeper problem of a loss of confidence in the “values” conveyed by a traditional humanistic education, which in turn reflects the decline of the traditional “high” arts and their detachment from everyday life. In a context of “art appreciation,” it becomes increasingly less clear why we must study the high arts when the ever-vital popular arts can increasingly be appreciated independently of them. The relative weight of high and popular art is not something that GA seeks to influence, beyond insisting on their common anthropological roots. But GA provides a justification for the very existence of the humanities as a discipline that is not available elsewhere: the idea that along with religion, works of art are sources of human self-understanding, and that “high art” has a specific role to play in this understanding. GA is not merely a theorization of the religious and esthetic components of culture; it shows how “theory” itself is part of the ongoing cultural enterprise that is coeval with the human, clarifying the raison d’être of the humanities by making explicit their anthropological roots. The intellectual life has many branches, but I think its unity is far greater than is generally understood. In partnership with religion, the humanities preserve an anthropological truth that natural science ignores.
Deconstruction and “French theory,” despite their infuriating postmodern victimism, should be understood along the same lines, as reflecting the humanities’ need to emancipate themselves from the model of the natural sciences, not for merely mimetic or strategic reasons, but to preserve this anthropological raison d’être rather than let it be trivialized into some variant of “cultural enrichment.” Yet the decline of “French theory” today reflects its failure to articulate its anthropological insights in other than a negative, victimary mode. In its cleverness, it was too ready to descend into nihilism. I think the reason for this tendency was the narrowness of the political view it extrapolated from the end of WWII and in particular, the Holocaust. Not only deconstruction, but also mimetic theory and GA belong to the family of postwar thought that reacts to the Holocaust with an accrued concern for victims. The stark new paradigm of the Nazis and the Jews embodied a general insight that social hierarchies based on postulated ontological differences are immoral. But this rejection does not provide an intellectual justification for the often crude victimary politics that accompanied the deconstruction of “phallogocentric” authority. Nor do the practitioners of more concretely political perspectives, notably those of “post-colonialism,” need all the nihilistic philosophical baggage that deconstruction brings with it. Former colonies have real problems that can be dealt with only as realities, not “texts.”
Girard’s anthropology, for which I find the accepted term “mimetic theory” inadequate, takes a far more serious look at the underlying problems of mimetic violence to which human social institutions must answer. This is not the place for a general critique, but I would point out in this context that although Girard is certainly not a victimary thinker in the vulgar sense—and indeed, La violence et le sacré was wrongly accused of justifying sacrificial violence as a necessity of human social organization—his failure to articulate a theory of representation has led many of his followers to apply the “scapegoat mechanism” to all confrontations at the expense of morality and common sense, as a kind of naïvely Nietzschean move “beyond good and evil.” (At our recent GA conference, one participant bravely compared Isaac, Jesus, and… Saddam Hussein as victims of scapegoating.) Regardless of our place on the political spectrum, fundamental human moral values, which are dependent on representation, belong in our originary conception of the human. The “moral model” is the core of the originary hypothesis.
No doubt the originary hypothesis is a hypothesis unlike any other, one that has led me at times, perhaps confusingly, to call GA a “minimal religion.” But this only emphasizes the often-forgotten point that humanistic thought, as opposed to that of the sciences, has need of a quasi-permanent basis in a vision of human ontology that is not merely physiological or sociological but moral. We cannot usefully talk about culture without a fundamental anthropology that includes a theoretical justification of human morality. Today, although our awareness of the need for permanence of this sort is in flux, our need for it is as great as ever. In the not very distant past, this permanence was guaranteed by religion. In Mere Christianity (McMillan 1952), C. S. Lewis alleged our universal agreement on basic moral principles as a proof of the natural basis of Christianity. Kant’s categorical imperative had no firmer basis, for Christianity has a more concrete explanation for the origin of morality than Kant—and as Girard has shown, this explanation involves the revelation of profound anthropological truths. GA completes the explanation.
This requirement of moral quasi-permanence is not a simple reflection of people’s need to impose moral ideas on immoral reality; it is key to providing a fundamental understanding of the human. The idea that paleontology might somehow replace religion as a source of this understanding is absurd. Nor should this need be interpreted to mean that we weak humans need to believe in some new myth of origin in order to be able to face the cruel reality of a “secular” godless universe. One of Girard’s most significant contributions to anthropology is his claim for the cognitive value of religion as a source of anthropological understanding. But Girard does not go far enough in seeing religions as theories of origin.
To the extent that they concern themselves with the question of origin at all, theories of secularization consider the decline in organized religion in the West as demonstrating that we are less concerned with, and therefore presumably less in need of, a stable hypothesis concerning our own origin. (Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether the American exception, coupled with the growth of Islam in Europe (Eurabia), provides an adequate, let alone salutary, counterweight to this trend.) We recall with a smile the horrified reactions of nineteenth-century bourgeois to the idea that we are “descended from the apes.” But the real cause for shock, one that has not abated, was that there is nothing in the Darwinian account to separate us from the apes, to define us as uniquely human. And generally speaking, those indifferent or hostile to religion, whether or not they identify themselves as “atheists,” insist to this day that nothing really essential does separate us from our simian ancestors, as though what is essential to our self-definition as human beings were something to be determined by “science” rather than by ourselves as the guardians of our own stake in humanity—as humanists.
The Western world today is full of people who have imbibed an ideology according to which humanity’s lack of moral superiority (to say the least) to the rest of the universe is grounds for favoring our disappearance or at any rate our diminution in numbers and “footprint.” How does one argue with such a conviction? Certainly it is akin to the moral component of religious belief, and despite what we might think in our experience with the religions of the West, not all that atypical of religious views of the human. For we should remember that the primary function of religion and of culture in general is not the promotion of the human conquest of the world but the prevention of self-annihilation through violence. Religion and culture are in the first place means of deferring violence and the resentment that motivates it, and if that requires self-mortification, buying organic food and recycled paper are surely among its least stringent and painful forms. But the prevalence of “green” religion does not imply that the fundamental cognitive function of religion in explaining human origin has been lost. Its inchoate superficiality as a belief system suggests rather that it is more a symptom than a substantial manifestation of the “need for religion.”
The failure of either organized religion or science to produce an intellectually satisfactory substrate for traditional religion’s “myths of origin” has led to the current malaise that produces on the one hand, works of “militant atheism” that reinvent Voltaire with breathtaking naiveté and on the other, defenses of “traditional” religion that demonstrate only the powerlessness of faith to transform itself into reason—while in the background, religious life either dries up or drifts in the direction of fideistic fundamentalism, Christian (and Jewish), and more menacingly, Islamic.
If religions, whose minimal formal requirement is the deferral of conflict through the repetition of the deferral of the originary event, provide explanations of human origin, it is because this basic function of deferral obliges them to recognize—as natural science, with its far more limited social functions, need not and therefore cannot—that the particular unity of the human is not merely biological but cultural. The source of our “common humanity” in the originary event is not merely a fact to be measured like a degree of similarity of DNA, but is itself constituted as the primary object of human reflection. The deferral of violence through representation as the essence of the human can only begin with an act self-aware in a new sense, and if religions recall this beginning it is because our every truly human act is situated on what is in essence the same scene as that on which the first sign was emitted, the sign that defers violence by naming its referent with the “name-of-God.”
The common-sense idea that we are different from chimpanzees because we alone reflect on the specificity of this difference, because we, unlike chimpanzees, think about what it means to belong to our, as opposed to their, species, is seldom heard today; if it were, it would no doubt be interpreted as a crypto-“fundamentalist” argument against the theory of evolution. Such simple truths are difficult to enunciate in the victimary atmosphere of our era, where we must not only be careful never to suggest that any given human group, particularly if it belongs to the “West,” has any superiorities, from wherever acquired, with respect to any other, but we cannot even boast of our advantages over our animal (and plant) brethren, save in the context of deploring our greater capacity for destruction. The urgency of this new belief system precludes the need for the subtleties of “French theory,” and consequently, in the eyes of many, of the humanities as a whole, to the advanced study of which this family of thought is perceived as central.
At present GA offers the only way to face this reality without either taking on the baggage of one or another religion—something incompatible with life in a truly multi-cultural or “global” society where one cannot expect others to share one’s beliefs—or jettisoning it all for the sake of “science,” which tells us what percentage of our DNA originated with Neanderthals but not what it is that allows us to talk about chimpanzees but not them about us. The independence of the originary hypothesis from paleontological discoveries is not a turning-away from science but a postulate of human ontology that stands outside the procedures, although not I think the spirit, of natural science.
It is in this sense that GA, without being even a “minimal religion,” nevertheless fulfills the minimal function of a religious doctrine of explaining the event-nature of human origin while remaining at the same time entirely based on reason. Although GA is not “Popperian” in the sense of limiting itself to falsifiable empirical claims (not that any science does this as single-mindedly as Popper would have us believe), one can conceive hypothetical circumstances that would indeed refute the originary hypothesis: finding animals that use a communication system analogous to human language, humans without language but otherwise recognizably “human,” or human groups whose cultures and/or languages fail to display the “scenic” elements we consider typically human. Although none of these circumstances have any likelihood of occurring, alleging them emphasizes that the solution de continuité increasingly recognized by scientists between human and animal communication systems is anything but a tautology—and was recognized by GA before it became common scientific knowledge. What the differential feature of our “new way of thinking” comes down to is the insistence, less even on the uniqueness of the originary event, which we postulate for the sake of parsimony, than on its event–nature or evenementiality, its uniqueness within the temporal continuum of the original humans themselves. It suffices to point out that the origin of the human as based on representation and the culture that is built on it cannot be explained by Darwinian biology because, very simply, it is not a biological phenomenon.
The originary hypothesis is best understood as a thought-experiment that allows us to situate within it fundamental human traits that are at the core of the scenic activities of culture. The hypothesis requires minimally an event or scene, the originary constitution of which requires some form of deferral of the horizontal appetite-world mediated by a sign or “symbolic” gesture. The latter must have begun as an indexical gesture and been voluntarily, consciously turned away from its original function. Beyond this, the practitioner of GA is welcome to modify in any way the originary scenario I have suggested, or to substitute one of his own.
At the time when people were talking of a “science of literature,” artificial intelligence seemed poised to take over our thinking processes, demonstrating in the most concrete way the non-specificity of the human, about to be replaced by a modern avatar of La Mettrie’s homme-machine. Today neither of these ideas remains in vogue. In the practical sphere the human retains its uniqueness, and in the esthetic sphere, it is accepted, at least for the moment, that not scientists but humanists are best qualified to draw what are ultimately anthropological conclusions from works of art and literature. My proposal is simply that we extend this humanistic domain of specialization beyond the arts to the area of fundamental or originary anthropology. The willingness to try GA’s “new way of thinking” offers a vast array of potential projects to humanities scholars in which, rather than being limited to clarifying what so and so thought about humanity, they will be investigating how what so and so thought about humanity fits into a universal anthropology. I don’t think there is a better way to affirm the distinctive intellectual value of humanistic study—and we had better start doing it before the other half of the humanities jobs disappear!