This Chronicle, although it can be read as an independent unit, is the continuation of a two-part essay begun in Chronicle 407.
Sartre’s néant, which seems to have nothing to do with language, is in fact a figure of language, as its parallel with his notion of (prose) language’s transparency makes clear; no medium is more transparent than nothingness. But language, once one is able to emancipate oneself from metaphysics and conceive it in its originary state, is anything but transparent; it is inextricable from the process of the creation/discovery of originary meaning. It was Derrida who discovered where Sartre’s néant really belongs in relation to language: not as a figure of its mediating role between consciousness and its objects, but within language itself as différance, which in our terms is the deferral of violence through the “arbitrary” promulgation of the sign/name-of-God that designates its object as (always already) sacred, interdicted as a result of an excess of desire.
Far from making possible the transparency of communication, the linguistic néant guarantees its opacity. Derrida deepens Barthes’ notion of écriture into a critique of all language and thought as falsely pretending to self-presence, so that the only moral use of language is in this auto-critique itself. Deconstruction fosters the conception of language as an ensemble of binary Nazisms, oppressor-victim pairs such as white-black, man-woman, straight-gay… Derrida is too clever to give his readers the opportunity to ask where and how he finds, even in the “margin,” the language that allows him to perform his critique. Deconstruction as a method has no positive doctrine; it demonstrates the indefensibility, the political incorrectness, of any positive affirmation. When writing has no zero degree and language is irredeemably complicit with oppression, we can at best make ourselves Jainists of thought, deconstructing language using words prepared for others, provided that we denounce its participation in the original sin of pretended presence.
Through its reference to “Western Civilization,” deconstruction extends its moral critique to all known intellectual history, for there is no brief for “other civilizations,” and in any case it is clear enough which civilization, before, during, and after Hitler, has long dominated the world. But Derrida’s leçon d’écriture (see Chronicle 388) makes clear that pre-literate cultures too engage in “writing” in the broad sense, that humanity has no unfallen state. That this position implies either that the human is itself a “fall” into the state of écriture that must be explained by a theory of origin, or else that life and the universe in general somehow participate in the false pretensions of human representation, is left unexamined. The more deeply one analyzes the foundations of deconstruction, the clearer it becomes that only an originary hypothesis can resolve its anomalies in a constructive fashion, including most crucially the paradox of the always-already of (sacred) signification.
Notwithstanding, the direction taken by deconstruction in the academy is rather the more facile one of acclimating its implicit anthropology to the familiar resentment-laden binaries of race, gender, etc. Deconstruction is reduced to a critique of the normality of today and above all of the recent past, where a whole industry has been created to denounce sexism, “Orientalism,” and other postmodern sins avant la lettre.
Derrida’s notion of différance presupposes the (non-) presence of a paradigm behind every act of signification. Because meaning has always already fallen into plurality it must abandon its spurious claim to ostensivity; words cannot point to what they mean. But Derrida fails to see that this loss of ostensivity can only be conceived as occurring on a scene always already cleared for meaning by an ostensive sign that is precisely not an act of violence but a “disinterested” appeal for attention. The mutual presence in which the participants share their attention to the sign creates a space of absence, a néant within which the real or imaginary object/referent of the sign may be “non-instinctually” contemplated. Rather than being mediated by a paradigm, meaning is mediated by a communal scene, even in mature, paradigmatic language. When I use the sign “red,” my brain does not normally decide whether its referent is red or pink or orange. If I see something that just appears red, my use of the sign depends on my implicit confidence that others will also see the object as red, just as when I see my friend John I don’t have to think before naming him John about his not being called James or Henry. The triangulation that occurs between my sign and its referent connects me to my (real and implicit) fellow speakers, not to a paradigm of signs. And if I can’t decide whether something is red or pink, this is not a matter of “selecting from a paradigm” on the model of the famous scene in Terminator, but of deciding which sign I can share in good faith with my linguistic community. This is precisely the lesson Derrida appears to have learned in the text “Foi et savoir” [Faith and Knowledge], discussed in Chronicle 340 (“Frère Jacques”).
Where Derrida goes wrong is in perpetuating the metaphysical méconnaissance of the origin of language, supposing that the existence of language itself requires no explanation and that the real question is whether it be spoken or written, (spuriously) immediate or (truly) mediate, in which case it is easy to see that an “immediate” language, whatever its “form of expression” (Hjelmslev), is a contradiction in terms, a lie perpetuated by the logocentric masters of civilization.
In contrast with Derrida, Girard in a brilliantly imperious move simply evacuates the question of language; what matters is the configuration of the scene itself, not the sign that emerges from it, which he reduces to the victim that occupies its center surrounded by the “non-instinctual attention,” whether or not accompanied by ostensive gestures, of the lyncher/participants. Nevertheless, Girard understands where Derrida does not that the ultimate lesson of the victimary is not that all human relations are modeled on the authority-as-violence of Auschwitz (transmuted in Girard to the emissary all-but-one-against-one), but that the essence of the human is its need for and realization of a scenic, transcendental control of violence. No doubt Girard gives too much credit to violence itself and not enough to its deferral, dismissing the fact that real, that is, human violence is understandable only as a return of violence after this deferral. But he nevertheless makes the key move beyond political posturing by grasping the constructive potential of human mimetic violence to create a mutually attentive or scenic space, cleared of appetite, in which meaning can be negotiated. That this once posited, Girard disdains to examine the institutional cultivation of this creativity in the market and other systems of exchange—leaving thereby, as we have seen, a space for “left” Girardism—should not be held to detract from his fundamental discovery.
As befits his transitional position between victimary thought per se and GA’s “post-millennial” anthropology, Girard has occupied from the beginning an anomalous position in the ranks of “theory.” His books, particularly Mensonge romantique, remain popular and are often quoted, but he is not included (e.g., by François Cusset in his 2003/08 French Theory) in the French theory pantheon. Because Girard locates the “victim” within an anthropological rather than a political model, his thought has no place for victimary resentment of authority, however easily his vocabulary may be adapted for this purpose.
GA, whatever the political views of its adherents, should be considered a fundamentally conservative mode of thought in that it grants a préjugé favorable to the normal over what challenges it. In particular GA accepts Fukuyama’s principle that the ultimate mode of governance is liberal democracy, broadly conceived as a free economic market under the authority of a one-person-one-vote political marketplace with the power to prevent abuses as well as “provide for the common defense [and] promote the general welfare.” An anthropology based on the minimal originary hypothesis tends to favor a Burkean respect for the political landscape because it attributes the origin of human society not to the crime of lynching of another human but to the less dramatic but more fundamental discovery/invention of the sacred sign as a new way to share resources equitably. It is hardly parsimonious to draw from the critical need to control mimetic violence the conclusion that the originary human act is a discharge of this violence divorced from any attempt to procure nourishment. GA assumes that by abandoning the pecking-order hierarchy of primate groups, the originary humans devised a mode of food distribution more egalitarian and therefore less conducive to mimetic violence; the group reinforces its solidarity by sharing, as do hunter-gatherer tribes to this day, “equal” portions of a central victim whose chief attraction is as a potential source of protein rather than as fodder for collective rage. GA is a post-victimary mode of thought precisely in that the group-victim or human-divine paradigm in its originary hypothesis is not analogous to the Nazi-Jew model that still informs Girard’s point of departure.
If, all other things being equal, victimary thinking in its French-theory mode has been popular because it enables left-wing resentment, and Girard is less popular but still palatable because his thought at least tolerates this resentment, what then can we say of GA’s potential for renewing humanistic thought?
The recent decline of “theory” is not so much the result of the academy’s recovery from its infatuation with the left as of a turn toward the practical in difficult economic times. Even the postcolonial trend that is increasingly dominant in French as well as English departments reflects a turn toward a more concrete interest in social structures. However victimary its concentrations on such things as women’s oppression and neo-colonial abuses, postcolonial “theory” understands even such politically charged phenomena as the linguistic oppression of colonials by their European masters without having to deconstruct the logos itself. Moreover, with the passage of years, victimary areas of study, feminism in particular, have lost something of their antinomian edge and show a more even-handed curiosity toward differences of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Victimary thought has had a mildly self-curative effect; testing an extreme model of differential relations against reality gives scholars an opportunity to acquire a less purely negative understanding of social difference. This should make them marginally more open to the constructions of GA.
A more ominous aspect of this turn to the practical is that humanists have been steadily losing ground to social scientists in the methodological sphere. Postmodernism undermines the traditional respect for the “classics” while creating the impression that humanistic thought, however valid in its own terms, is wholly negative, so that the only remaining positive knowledge is “scientific.” And although most sociologists and anthropologists are as reliably left wing if not more so than professors of language and literature, they operate according to different and in a fundamental sense incompatible protocols in the study of the human.
Under these circumstances, in claiming GA to be archetypical of humanistic thinking, indeed the implicit ground of all such thinking, I am making a case for humanistic thought in general as an independent anthropological mode that cannot be subsumed by scientific discourse as it is normally conceived.
Let us return to the definition of the human that is at the basis of GA: the human is the species that poses a greater danger to itself than does its external environment. This picture of the “human condition” is a direct consequence of the enhanced human propensity to mimesis already remarked on by Aristotle. This definition implies that the primary need of the emergent human species is for a means to defer internal violence, a means that the originary hypothesis situates in the reciprocal exchange of signs around a sacred (appetitive) center. The group’s reciprocal equality is the source of our sense of morality, of what I have called the moral model first instanced in the originary exchange of signs and then put into practice by the more or less equal division of the central object.
In the previous Chronicle I noted that the humanistic focus on literary and philosophical works has its origin in their use, originally in a highly didactic fashion, to guarantee and teach ethical principles and ways of conduct, whether or not in the context of a sacred history. The heart of humanistic thought is the recognition that we all share this moral configuration on our internal scene of representation. It is this moral reality of human life, an a priori law rather than an empirical arrangement like those studied by evolutionary psychology, that is the basis of all ethics, even those that are farthest from egalitarianism.
Because it is based on a shared imperative rather than either a hereditary or a social trait, such an understanding of the human is essentially inaccessible to science, however much scientists may examine empirically existing ethical practices and codes in their quest for such things as “altruism genes.” As a fundamental anthropology grounded on a hypothesis of human origin, GA’s insistence on an originary moral model cuts it off from scientific empiricism. And although GA’s moral model has much in common with the metaphysical thought exemplified by Kant’s postulation of the “categorical imperative” as the basis for practical reason, unlike metaphysics, GA grounds its notion of transcendence in a real-world hypothesis of origin. This grounding of the transcendent in empirical reality justifies GA’s claim to be a “new way of thinking.”
Similarly, the scientific way of thinking is unable to formulate the essence of human language. Scientists certainly study language—linguistics is perhaps the most rigorous of the human sciences—but they cannot understand the specifically human nature of language, let alone formulate hypotheses of its origin, without leaving the realm of positive science. Here again, GA alone offers a hypothetical construction of the minimal configuration within which the human moral and linguistic community emerged. It would be foolish to claim that GA is in some sense the “ultimate” humanism, but I think it can be said to attain a new quasi-scientific level of rigor as a founding hypothesis of humanism. I am therefore confident in claiming that GA is the first truly humanistic anthropology, the first way of thinking that combines the Latin and Greek visions of the human, that of humanitas, which has traditionally begun in medias res with one or more revelatory texts, and that of anthropos, which claims that empirical understanding of the specific traits of humanity provides a logos on which to found a science of the human.
Even if we stipulate that the above claims are justified, we are still left with the question of how our new way of thinking might be able to rescue humanistic study from its current near exclusive focus on the victimary, which even as its militancy is mitigated, cannot be expected to open itself in the foreseeable future to a truly universal perspective.
But general considerations of this sort are situated in the active marketplace of ideas, a domain where no theoretical a priori can penetrate. The books and essays my colleagues and I have written over the years provide only tentative and necessarily fallible examples of how GA might be adapted to the various domains of humanistic study.
To what extent does GA offer a productive paradigm capable of extending itself to the study of the arts, philosophy, political science… ? I think that if GA has any future at all, such questions must be left to those who are already or who are willing to become specialists in these fields, while being at the same time sufficiently open minded to experiment with this new way of thinking. The chief advantage of a minimalist model is that it is maximally accessible to those working in the various specialized disciplines. Only they, not I, can answer questions of relevance. But it is first up to us to demonstrate—and to publicize—the explanatory power of our paradigm.