Although the details are still being worked out, I am currently in the process of retiring from UCLA. This does not mean the end of my intellectual activity; in fact I have never published so much (five books since 2007, not counting a good deal of “creative writing”). But it is a sign that I’m getting on, and now that I have in principle taught my last courses at UCLA, this seems a good moment to take stock of the situation and to offer some words of encouragement to those who share my faith in the not-always-realized potential of GA.
As I have pointed out recently in A New Way of Thinking (Davies Group, 2011) and The Girardian Origins of GA (Imitatio, 2012), GA does not pretend to be an empirical science; its central originary hypothesis is explicitly humanistic rather than natural-scientific. The forthcoming GASC, to be held at UCLA in June, will have as its theme “Putting the Human back in the Humanities.” To defend GA is perforce to address this crucial issue.
The substance of GA’s claim of minimalism is that it offers a more parsimonious way of understanding the human and its unity than empirical natural science, yet does not require the credo quia absurdum of religion. The originary hypothesis has the advantage of putting at the base of the human the scenic nature of human culture and of the forms of representation, language in the first place, that depend on it. Just as the scene postulates a configurational discontinuity irreducible to its components and their local interactions, so does its historical emergence require a temporal discontinuity that reflects the non-gradual emergence of the human in an event. Events are not reducible to the happenings of either the purely physical “natural” world or the pre-human life world. Scene and event are inseparable; things that happen on scenes are events, and events happen only on scenes (which by no means denies the possible complexity of the individual instantiations of either term). Because of its necessarily interactive nature, the existence of a scenic event is not empirically verifiable through “factual” measurements of its constituents. It can only be grasped by an intuition of the whole as, essentially, a human phenomenon. It is this I mean when I call ours a humanistic hypothesis.
All religions embody in some form the scenic-evenemential intuition that is the basis of GA. But the Judeo-Christian tradition (at least) eventually engenders an “Enlightenment” that rejects in the name of humanism and science all intuitions (“revelations”) that cannot be instantiated empirically. Yet as I showed in The Scenic Imagination, Enlightenment thinkers from Hobbes to John Rawls have continued to think in (hypothetical rather than religio-dogmatic) scenic terms. These thinkers have formulated, as does GA, scenic hypotheses such as the “social contract” for human society and humanity itself. Such hypotheses construct an unprovable but “heuristic” hypothesis, as opposed both to the abstraction of philosophical first principles and the in medias res of the social sciences. The specific difference of GA is that its hypothetical scenario is not conceived as a fictional “thought experiment” but a first principle of anthropological thought. That is, the originary hypothesis is a hypothetical event that one must nevertheless consider as actually having taken place, or to put it more parsimoniously, whose non-reality we must never rely on. This is what makes GA indeed a “new way of thinking,” heir to, but not reducible to, the “social contract” theories to which Girard, for one, would like to reduce it. The roots of the hypothesis may be traced both through Girard to Durkheim’s “sociological” sacred-concept as well as to Derrida’s post-Nietzschean critique of phenomenological immediacy.
GA’s insistence on the reality of its hypothetical event hits a raw nerve, seeming to many an essentially religious gesture, which only means that religion still understands the human better than either natural science or “enlightened” philosophy. For without event-temporality, one has no way of understanding the scenic nature of the human. The social scientist, whether or not he sees scenes, has no category of human ontology into which to put them; they are at best the terrain for the activities of an Erving Goffman or a Harold Garfinkel, who examine the scenic as an occasional component of the human rather than its universal foundation.
My friends, I am getting on. If you are persuaded by the scenic-evenemential originary hypothesis, it will be up to you, and in not so many years, to you alone, to spread its “gospel” to the world. The heuristic advantage of scenic thinking is that it is intuitively simple. To the extent that my own speculations in this domain are useful, it is not as products of my individual “genius,” but because they display a theoretically backed confidence in the scenic imagination that we all share. To think about the phenomena of human culture in terms of an originary scenario sharpens the mind. As I have claimed, and I see no reason to retract this claim, we can and in principle must be able to situate in our hypothetical scene of origin all the essential characteristics of the human: ethics, art, religion, and of course, language.
The originary hypothesis may be “new,” but it is not obscure or difficult; on the contrary, it suffices to open oneself to it to find it intuitively obvious. No doubt the ease with which we adopt it suggests to professional philosophers that it is trivial and absurd, but that should tell us that it is functionally true. What indeed do “professional” philosophers offer to replace the originary hypothesis? In dealing with language and “mind” they always begin from abstract “principles,” never facing up to the necessity that the scenic be born on a scene, that the event be born in an event. As second-generation Girardians, we should accept Girard’s most central intuition; that we can know human reality, that the fundamental intuitions it provides us need be treated with caution but not with unreasoning suspicion. At the same time, we should recognize (as Andrew McKenna has noted) that the “deconstructive” impulse to defer the violence of the scenic is motivated by the same considerations as our hypothesis. Our greater “violence” than Derrida et cie. in conceiving the reality of the scene reflects our sharper, more concrete understanding of deferral in its relation to real human violence and its fundamental place in language and all forms of representation.
My recent Chronicles on Baudelaire are small samples of the kind of analysis that can be done in specific cultural domains, as are, on a larger scale, virtually all the scholarly articles we publish in Anthropoetics. Today the audience for (sometimes over-) subtle deconstructions of the cultural has all but disappeared, and the victimary is no longer sought in textual nuances but in overt revelations and denunciations of oppression. Thus the criterion of the human is reduced in a far less nuanced manner than in early postmodernism to the imposition of victimage; the humanizing passage from immanence to transcendence, from the “horizontal” to the “vertical,” is caricatured as the imposition of the tyranny of “culture” on the innocent non-hierarchy of “nature.” Whence the need is all the greater for a universal anthropology that respects the indispensable virtues of human firstness while acknowledging the resentment it generates.
We can say that the greatness of a “humanist” creation, whether a text, a body of work by an author or composer, a painting, or a work of philosophy, is a measure of how powerfully and critically it realizes the human scenic imagination in embodying an articulated vision of the scene of culture and of the interplay between its horizontal-appetitive and transcendental-representational components.
As for Baudelaire, whose poetic genius is as graspable today as it was in his own time, few artists have had a clearer sense of the “artificiality” of the cultural, not in the decadent Oscar Wilde sense (to which Baudelaire nonetheless contributed the founding impetus and into which he often, ironically, allowed himself to descend) but as our central cultural intuition: that the world of signs exists to redeem—to preserve from violence—the appetitive one, which human mimesis makes incapable of surviving on its own.
A simple aside from Baudelaire’s late fragmentary autobiographical work Mon coeur mis à nu (My Heart Laid Open, lit. “made naked”) reveals a sensitivity to the form-content sign-world distinction one seeks in vain in the works of nineteenth-century philosophers:
Toute idée est, par elle-même, douée d’une vie immortelle, comme une personne.
Car la forme créée, même par l’homme, est immortelle. Car la forme est indépendante de la matière, et ce ne sont pas les molécules qui constituent la forme.
[Every idea is, in itself, possessed of an immortal life, like a person.
For form created, even by man, is immortal. For form is independent of matter, and it is not molecules that constitute form.]
That Baudelaire’s first example of “form” is an idea makes clear that his model is that of representation, that the form not created by man is one (we conceive of as) created by God.
A poet who understands that an idea is “immortal” is not necessarily a great poet, but to be a great poet one must have an intuitive grasp of the virtual immortality of the uses of language by which one seeks to defer our “natural” tendency to self-destruction.
Since not everyone is a literary scholar, I invite the reader to perform a more straightforward theoretical test, inspired by a recent reading assignment. Here are a couple of quotes taken from the recent David Macey translation of Marcel Fournier’s 2007 maxi-biography, Emile Durkheim (Polity, 2013):
. . . society cannot make its influence felt unless it is in action, and it is in action only if the individuals who comprise it are assembled and acting in common. It is through common action that society becomes conscious and affirms itself; society is above all else active cooperation . . . Thus it is action that dominates religious life, for the very reason that society is its source. (p. 625)
Above and beyond all the dogmas and all the denominations, there exists a source of religious life as old as humanity and which can never run dry: it is the one which results from the fusion of consciences, of their communion in a common set of ideas, of the morally invigorating and stimulating influence that every community of men imposes on its members. (p. 656)
In these passages, on the one hand, religion is fundamentally common action, and on the other, it is the product of the fusion of consciences, that is, of faculties of ideation that commune “in a common set of ideas.” Both of these statements, which in no way contradict each other, display Durkheim’s fundamental anthropological intuition that “society” is more than just a system of organization, that it subsists as a unifying model (as a rule, as “the sacred”) within the minds of its individual members. But to define the connection between “common action” and “a common set of ideas” in these two passages merely as “society” is to fetishize the latter concept as a merely virtual explanatory source for both action and thought. The originary hypothesis articulates the connection between formal and institutional representation, ideas and rites, and other complementary ways of reproducing and reinforcing the originary production of the sign. Durkheim’s ideas “validate” GA as much as ours do his; these theories, with Girard in between to supply the crucial element of mimetic violence as the negative driving force for hominization, are indeed mutually self-reinforcing.
I am certain that a more thorough analysis would only confirm these impressions. Indeed, a GA study of Durkheim would be most valuable. As the founder (in France, at least) of theoretical-empirical social science, Durkheim was constantly faced with problems of method. Society had to be understood through the analysis of facts, but human “facts” cannot be dealt with as though they were data from the natural world. From the division of labor through suicide to the “elementary forms” of religion, Durkheim was guided by the intuition of a social totality present in some form to the members of society that was the self-reflective source of the theories by which he attempted to explain these “facts.” What led him to the study of religion was his increasing realization that the social order was most powerfully grasped in its “primitive” form as embodied in the “actions” and “ideas” referred to in the quotes above. Or in a word, that analysis of “elementary” social forms was an empirical substitute for an originary hypothesis, which he considered speculative and hence “unscientific.” What the originary hypothesis does for Durkheim, and by extension for the theoretical foundation of the social sciences, is to provide a model of the human scene that clarifies what these “elementary” societies and our own have in common: the necessity of deferring mimetic violence through representation.
I hope those working in the vast space between Baudelaire and Durkheim are able to put GA to good use!