People often ask why GA remains attached to the notion of an originary event, a hypothesis they find so strong that it resembles an act of faith. I have given many defenses of the plausibility of the hypothesis in my books and in these columns. But since GA purports to trace all human phenomena to their originary roots, it cannot dismiss the intuition that makes skeptics turn away from this hypothesis as epiphenomenal.
Unlike other theoretical modes, GA stands at the point of intersection of the social sciences, which deal essentially with repetitive phenomena, and the humanities, which deal with unique ones. This is a locus that until now only religion has occupied. This fact explains why the field of religious study is the one on which GA has thus far made its greatest impact. The principal organ of Girardian thought is the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R), and the place at UCLA where GA is the most welcome is in the Center for the Study of Religion, which has just concluded its first year of operation with a colloquium on Buddhism and Christianity. (Let me take this opportunity to express my appreciation and admiration to David Rapoport whose able and devoted direction has gotten the Center off to a flying start.)
But to say that GA occupies the place of religion is to evoke a danger. Those whom the Gods would make mad, they inspire to become their rivals. Rivalry with Gods, from Lucifer and Adam eating the apple to the Tower of Babel and the countless examples from Classical mythology, is the most critical religious theme. The distinction between divine and human is one that is continually challenged yet always preserved because it is the foundation of the human system of signification. To use the sign is to expel its object from our world, to defer its consumption long enough for it to be endowed with a Being that transcends its material incarnation. God is the sacred that remains after the sacrificial object has been divided up and assimilated. Without the separation between the transcendent world of meanings and the sublunar world of things, there can be no culture, no humanity.
Is it possible then for a mode of thought to occupy the locus of religion without incurring the penalties of rivalry? In Euripides’ Bacchae, Pentheus is torn to pieces by the Maenads led by his own mother. As a character in the play, Dionysos is to blame for this violence, but this is only to say that Dionysos is a privileged projection of human violence. A challenge to the god is a challenge to his human followers, in this case the women of Thebes, whose Dionysian cult differs little from a rebellion. By claiming that its explanations of human phenomena neither ignore the cognitive value of religion nor defer to it, is originary thinking not making a equally hubristic challenge?
Apprehension of this challenge explains the resistance to the originary hypothesis on the part of persons who have no difficulty with the big bang theory of the origin of the universe or with the concept of punctuated evolution that rejects the old idea that new species emerge by differentiating themselves imperceptibly from their predecessors. For it is one thing to claim that we are all descended from the same woman (the “Eve” hypothesis based on mitochondrial RNA), and another to speak of an originary scene. Here we come uncomfortably close to the singularities on which religions are founded; we recoil from their implicit rivalry. It is not really a matter of deciding whether the originary scene took place only once or whether it happened ten times in ten different places. If ten, why not a hundred, or a thousand? The real point is to submerge the event in a cloud of other events so that it becomes a non-event, deferring once more, in the manner of the social sciences, the event-nature of human origin.
Persons who think this way rarely claim they are doing so in deference to religion. The confidently atheistic scientist may well consider the originary hypothesis as religion in disguise. But Voltairean protestations to the contrary, this stance implicitly acquiesces in a division of labor that leaves it to religion to provide a narrative account of the scene of our origin. The denial that such a scene ever took place does not explain the religious reconstruction of such scenes. Indeed, the “scientific” study of religion, taken up with such confidence by Max Müller et al in the previous century, seems to have been quietly dropped from the agenda of the social sciences. The claim might be made that this is done out of “sensitivity” to personal beliefs that cannot be tested by science. But sensitivity is just another way of referring to the same old reluctance. The fear of offending others and the fear of offending the gods are variants of the same deferral of mimetic rivalry that generated the name-of-God in the first place.
Can one put GA in the place of religion without occupying the same place as the founders of religions? Can one conceive the originary hypothesis without hubris? Is not the inevitable result of its formulation to make of it, however impersonally expressed, a form of personal witnessing? (In a future column I will examine the problems of situating GA within the opposition between the intellectual asceticism of Popper’s falsifiability-criterion and the textual memory of the humanities.) Nietzsche was the first to face this modern problematic: the need to occupy the central locus of thought puts the thinker in rivalry with the gods. As a result, Nietzsche went mad. Is GA a similar example of la folie des grandeurs?
In the first issue of Anthropoetics, I suggested that religion and ethics are founded on Pascal‘s wager: we are all embarqués, all in the foxholes, all faced with crisis. GA, in contrast to these modes, discusses crisis from without, proposes no ethic other than the end of crisis, the deferral of violence. Its aim is to express the objective truth of the human, but by an analogy to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, objective truth and ethical functionality are mutually limiting: like the position and momentum of a particle, beyond a certain point the truth and ethical value of an idea become inversely dependent on each other.
Yet this uncertainty diminishes over time, and cannot help but be diminished by the very fact of its formulation. GA is impossible because it is the first form of thought to recognize the paradoxical nature of thought. But paradox is stasis only within the logic of identity. Paradox, the non-structural structure of the Heraclitean-Hegelian dialectic, guarantees to human thought and history its eternal dynamism. To the extent that GA contributes to our understanding of this dynamism, it does not destroy it but drives it to a higher level. This is something that religion, bound as it is to narrative form, cannot do.
The impossible rivalry of originary thinking with the sacred is the ultimate proof of its necessity as a minimization of the sacred. Indeed, it is so necessary that the present formulation of it need not be recognized in order for history to enact it. To take it as one person’s thought would be to situate it in the very realm of mimetic rivalry that declares its impossibility. It can only become accepted as always already obvious, when people come to realize that they have been engaged in originary thinking sans le savoir. As it’s unlikely I’ll be around by that time, perhaps my name can be remembered as the acronym jokingly devised by Ken Mayers in the first GA seminar: Generative Anthropology, the New Science.