Let me begin by making a central distinction between two modes of theoretical discourse about the world that supplement the “practical” uses of language. (The latter are essentially, as in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, ways of getting others to cooperate in various enterprises, “language games” based on the imperative rather than the declarative.) These two modes are the scientific, on the one hand, and what I will call originary thinking on the other. We all know what empirical science is, well enough in any case to dispense with an elaborate discussion here. But originary thinking, which I used in the past as a synonym for GA, deserves I think to be used more broadly to encompass all discourses that in one way or another take into account the origin of the human in the fundamental paradox of signification, the fact that in the human sphere, meanings are undecidably prior to and posterior to the use of the sign that points to them. In the event postulated by the originary hypothesis, an aborted gesture of appropriation becomes the “name of God,” postulating the prior existence of the sacred power that unites the new community in the deferral of appropriative violence. The dichotomy thus created remains amazingly, or simply necessarily, unresolved today, in the era of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience and books entitled God is Not Great—that between God creates man and Man creates God.
I repurposed the term originary thinking in order to emphasize the close relationship between its two chief modes. The first is religious discourse, which explicitly describes and attempts to explain human origin—which I would claim to be this discourse’s fundamental purpose, if we extend the notion of origin to encompass that of originary essence. The second is the category of non-religious or “secular” thought that I would call humanistic, which includes GA and related writings such as Girard’s, as well as the more traditional discourse of philosophy. Related to this is the non-discursive world of art, whose representations are not exactly “thinking,” but which in my overall perspective is definitely originary. Thus what distinguishes humanistic from scientific, even “social-scientific” thought, while at the same time bringing it closer to religious discourse and art, is that the former, but not the latter, cannot avoid the derangement/enrichment to logical thought posed by the fundamental paradox of signification.
I apologize for the vagueness of these formulations. But however much we attempt to do better, clearly the problem of formulation is one with the problem itself, which given the nature of the latter is hardly surprising. Indeed, to take a step further, it is this impossibility of arriving at an unambiguous and universally acceptable formulation of the originary paradox that is at the root of the pseudo-debate between “atheism” and “belief” as well as of the divide between “the two cultures” that the scientists always seem to be winning but never really make progress in, let alone religious wars and all the rest.
The trouble with originary paradox is that it’s “turtles all the way down”: that there is no solid ground upon which the problem can be seen to emerge. But this doesn’t mean that no progress is possible. Once we accept that a definitive “solution” along the lines of natural science is inconceivable, our goal for a theory of human origin becomes to minimize its presuppositions in the spirit of Ockham’s razor. Given the essentially communal and scene-based nature of human culture, this minimalism obliges us to conceive the origin of humanity and of language as a scenic event rather than an indefinite chronological series. One way of expressing the paradox is as the indecidability between the first event of language and the process within which it emerges: how can we speak of a “first event” of language? Yet if we simply deny the paradox and opt for Darwinian gradualism, where the impossibility of imagining the transition between animal and human is finessed by turning it into the race between Achilles and the Tortoise and assuming that by “passing to infinity” the one will catch up to the other, we fall out of the human domain of “culture” or humanism into the world of natural science.
One of the difficulties of humanistic thinking is that its traditional rational mode, that of philosophy or metaphysics, is founded on its claim to have expelled the paradoxical nature of events of meaning such as are found in religious or poetic discourse to the benefit of the declarative propositions of which the language of natural science would later come to be composed. “Secular” humanistic thought emerges in opposition to religious dogma, which founds the event-nature of the human on “supernatural” forces. But if we would retain the possibility of rational humanistic thought as opposed to an open appeal to religious revelation or ostensivity, yet not fall into the Quixotic imposition of the language of natural science on human affairs, we need a new way of thinking that accepts human paradox, but on the condition of seeking to minimize it.
I recently completed a monograph on the relationship between the thought of René Girard and GA for Imitatio, the Girardian foundation created by Peter Thiel, and found myself seeking a firmer basis for my contention that although Girard likes to label his thought “scientific,” it isn’t really any more so than my own. I think Girard is justified in claiming that despite his frequent rhetorical concessions to dogmatic religious belief, his thought is not simply or even essentially religious, that he has indeed taken the key step of demonstrating that religious discourse, particularly that of the Bible, is a source of anthropological understanding. But Girard’s analyses are not those of the “social science” or science humaine of anthropology. His is a humanistic anthropology, a rational form of originary thinking that finds in religious texts the models of human self-understanding–in fact, a kind of preliminary form of GA.
The human is not removable or even bracketable from language. When the philosopher constructs a chain of reasoning he takes the prior existence of human language for granted, as requiring no theory to explain its origin. He takes on faith that language is a neutral tool whose employment can be made “context-free” and in particular freed from the human context of its origin. This assertion of the essential non-paradoxicality of the proposition is the basis of metaphysics, which sacrifices a theory of human origin for the advantages conferred by the construction of a rational system (whose paradoxes can be treated as anomalies).
Although Girard is not one to call his thinking paradoxical, in contrast to the propositional models of metaphysics, the emissary murder that Girard sees as the originary operation-event of our species is indeed presented in paradoxical terms, although not in the more precise manner that reference to signification makes possible. Girard finds evidence of scenes of mob execution or lynching mostly in myths, with gestures to the ethnographic literature and the shadowy history of the pharmakon. The “paradoxical” role of the victim as the bringer of both violence and peace, as therefore the object of highly ambivalent emotions, is precisely Girard’s point of emphasis. This is the origin of the sacred, which is in his view nothing but human violence that, once expelled from the community, now serves to protect it from itself.
Girard’s paradox is in fact dependent on signs, for at the limit the change from bad to good, from bringer of plague to bringer of peace, is possible only if the group possesses a collective sign of the victim/god that it can refer to in both cases. For the murder itself does not suffice to fulfill Girard’s scenario, whose key moment is in fact reference to the victim (“the first non-instinctual attention”) after the murder, which means, in effect, after the victim as a recognizable human being has disappeared. But Girard’s exposition is unconcerned with whether the sacred in the end attaches to a memory, to the remains of the victim, or to the place where the event occurred. His is indeed a kind of minimal semiotic, but one more instinctive than self-aware.
For if the participants in the murder experience a paradoxical state, Girard himself does not; his description of the murder situation is unambiguous and purportedly supported by unlimited quantities of evidence. The victim is blamed for the crisis, then worshiped for having ended it, when in fact it was the mob that, acting in méconnaissance, discharged its aggression on an arbitrarily chosen scapegoat. What ultimately permits the discovery of this arbitrariness is the culmination of biblical victimary revelation in the Crucifixion, which demonstrates the essential non-guilt of the emissary victim and the consequent méconnaissance of the murderers.
In a typical emissary murder, the victim is in principle no more innocent than the others, even if he is no more guilty either. The very question of innocence and guilt isn’t raised; he is somehow made responsible, and this makes him the unique source of significance. The originary binary distinction that founds the meaning of human representation is based on the focusing of violence, which in the absence of prior moral laws is arbitrary without being “evil,” although it can be judged as such retrospectively in the light of the self-reflection it begins.
Jesus, in contrast, as the revealer of this moral judgment, is chosen as victim precisely as a result of his revelation. His non-complicity in mimetic violence allows him to understand from without this violence and its central role in the formation of human institutions. His choice as victim consequently reveals the essential link between the creation of human meaning and not merely the denial but the murder of a prior always-already existing truth, that of the logos. It is this “always already” in all its paradoxicality that guarantees Girard’s discourse, whose rationality is not compatible with the sober literalism of “social science.” For the latter, the equivalent of the “always already” is its simple incapability, not merely of discovering the “missing link” between animal and human, but of formulating what would be required for such a link to be “discovered.”
The simplest way to put this is no doubt to refer to the first words of John: In the beginning was the Logos. The origin of (human) language is the originary mystery of the universe, the moment at which humanity invents/discovers a new dimension that separates it from the merely natural. Postulating the existence of language from “the beginning” is in one way or another the formula for all humanistic thinking, even if there is a real difference in self-awareness between its mere postulation and its formulation as an originary hypothesis.
Clearly religion is paradoxical; its sharpest thinkers, such as Pascal or Augustine, often formulate their ideas in overtly paradoxical terms. What else is the “supernatural” than paradox? What does it mean to speak of a “supernatural” being? It can’t simply be a special kind of being that obeys different rules from other objects in our universe. It can only exist as a constant denial and transcendence of natural reality—in particular, of mortal human reality. The “supernatural” is a product of signification. I have often made the point that the essence of the supernatural is the attribution to human-like beings of qualities that can exist only in signs, such as immortality, ubiquity, and so on.
Art is a more varied and ultimately more interesting category. Art is not in principle a form of thinking, but it is surely legitimate to call it a form of originary representation and therefore an embodiment of paradox. Religion has its adepts and its enemies, but outside of restrictive religious sects, virtually everyone consumes and often produces art, drawing a doodle or humming a tune. (This will change, of course, if the Salafists take over the world. Stay tuned.)
Clearly there is something anomalous about Gods and the like, but what precisely is paradoxical about art? Perhaps it is simplest to begin with the word fiction. A fiction is a set of representations that explicitly deny, or simply “bracket,” their correspondence with reality. In everyday language, when we say “the cat is on the mat,” we assume that our interlocutor has a right to verify this by observation and to assign our statement a truth value. The paradoxical roots of language are at a distance from this family of statements, which rely on the stability of such categories as “cat” in the context of our local experience.
Let us not get into the fascinating but ultimately trivial complexities of meta-discourse, beginning with the status of the sentence “the cat is on the mat” in our previous paragraph. The bottom line is still that even when cited and used “as if,” the sentence makes a referential claim; that is its “illocutionary force,” to use Austin’s term. But in a fiction, such claims refer no longer to the “real world” we share with each other but to a fictional world.
What is paradoxical about this is that in such a world, unlike that of “reality,” there is no prior basis for one’s statements. In the originary scene, “reality” is a group of creatures surrounding, let us say, a dead buffalo. When the user of the first sign begins to point to the buffalo rather than beginning an act of appropriation of it, the attribution of significance to the buffalo inaugurates a new “category of thought” in a world where there were previously no “categories of thought.” Was the desirability of this buffalo to this group of hunters beyond the capacity of natural hierarchies to manage its distribution a sign that it was always-already “sacred”? or is sacrality conferred by the group on it (God creates Man/Man creates God)? That is, does the relationship of deferral, néant, numinousness to which these partial descriptions refer have an independent ontological existence prior to its implementation by humans, or can we simply describe it as an “instrument” that we create in order to master the world? These are questions, I hasten to point out, that are neither raised nor addressed in Girard’s originary anthropology, yet they are as implicit in his as in mine.
In the world of the artwork, this always-already is implemented overtly although invisibly. We know that whatever happens to the characters or the melodic line or the forms and colors of an abstract painting must be taken as the product of “the artist’s will.” When Flaubert called the novelist a God in his creation, readers of his Correspondence related this to the increased social influence of the writer in the Romantic era, but in effect even the humblest artist, even the oral poet whose “composition” is no more than the effort to remember what he has previously heard sung, is insofar as he renders himself responsible for the work by reciting it, “like God” without any fanfare. The reader, spectator, listener conjures up an “objective-correlative” world on the basis of the work, as though the representation simply gave access to a supplementary reality. But he is always aware at the same time that the creator’s will informs this representation, which otherwise would be mere words on a page or paint on a canvas.
In religious experience the “always already” is a mystery never quite graspable, attributable to the divinity in a fashion that allows for infinite theological speculation but never really demands it. On the contrary, as Jesus suggests, we are better off just accepting the mystery like little children. In contrast, in art we are quite aware of the double nature of the representations we are assimilating. The motivation for every element of the representation is attributable both to the internal coherence of the work–the story line, the development of the melody–and to the simple esthetic will of the artist. You can say that Hamlet killed Polonius because he suspected he was the king, or that Shakespeare thought it would be a good idea to demonstrate at this point in the play his intellectual hero’s murderous potential. Is a given sentence or line of poetry “beautiful” because it contributes to the cohesion of the story/poem, or because it reveals to you the transcendental will of the artist? This is clearly a esthetic version of the oscillatory relationship between God creates Man and Man creates God. Does the world have its own logic, which we can discover, or should we see it as however inscrutably the expression of God’s will? After all, the words are just pretty words, the central buffalo is just something good to eat, but somehow these things are worthy of universal, memorable significance. The esthetic equivalent of pointing to the buffalo with the originary name-of-God is to affirm that the poet wouldn’t have written his words if they didn’t already bear such significance.
The “Humanities,” defined as the study of literature and other humanistic practices, are tacitly founded on the proposition that only these paradoxical entities, works of religious and esthetic culture, as well as the rational metaphysical tradition that seeks, always unsuccessfully, to expel the human paradox, are bearers of genuine anthropological insight and can teach us “what it means to be human.” This is the premise of what used to be called a “liberal arts” education. Today, what seemed not long ago an unexceptionable truth has fallen out of awareness and become tacitly contested. Literary works are increasingly examined as “documents” providing evidence of social conditions and above all of modes of oppression, while to the extent that the cultural forms of art and religion are studied at all, it is from the standpoint of evolutionary-cognitive psychology, as though our understanding of neurons and neurotransmitters on the one hand and the enhancement of “reproductive fitness” or “group selection” on the other could trump the self-understanding human culture provides.
Whatever differences I may have with Girard on how to formulate the centrality of representation to the human condition, this is a time when it is urgent to emphasize the common core that Girard’s thought shares with GA. Today the West is in crisis on many levels, and whatever happens in the political sphere, I think the fundamental anthropological knowledge crystallized in GA’s new way of thinking is the last hope for humanistic thought, the last line of defense against the victimary death spiral the accumulating evidence for which Mark Steyn brings together in After America.
Can GA save the West? We should ask more humbly what way of thinking provides the best insights into the human and therefore the best intellectual weapons in the West’s defense. If you agree with me that GA meets these criteria, then our duty as human beings who have shared in the benefits of the Western market system is clear. Originary thinkers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your oikophobia.