At the recent GASC conference at UCLA (June, 2013), the discussion turned to the originary scene as an instance of what anthropologist Michael Tomasello calls a joint or shared attentional scene. The question was raised as to whether the originary participants actually intended, and understood, the originary sign and its referent in the same sense. To what extent was their attention actually “shared”? This question struck me as one which could serve as the beginning of a deconstructive critique of the originary hypothesis—and an opportunity to consider once again the relationship of Generative Anthropology to Deconstruction. Professor Gans has emphasized the importance of understanding Derrida’s notion of deferral or différance in generative-anthropological terms, but here I take a different approach by suggesting how Generative Anthropology provides a solution to the aporia of deconstruction. Before doing so, however, we need to clarify what we mean by Deconstruction, and take a short detour into hermeneutics.

Jacques Derrida’s work, which is virtually synonymous with Deconstruction, has a reputation for being dense and almost incomprehensible. Whatever might be the reasons for the difficulty of Deconstruction, it has come to seem, to me at least, that Derrida’s larger thesis can be clearly stated in fairly simple terms. The most economical way to understand the main idea of Deconstruction is using the framework of hermeneutics. Although Derrida rejected hermeneutics, it still forms a useful starting point. My goal is to show how Deconstruction might respond to the originary hypothesis, and how Generative Anthropology responds to Deconstruction. I will also be suggesting some affinities between pragmatism and Generative Anthropology.

To begin with hermeneutics: meaning, we all know, depends on context. Responsible interpretation, therefore, involves considering the larger context of an utterance and not taking a passage out of context. So the first task of interpretation is to reconstruct the original context, reading the whole text carefully, and taking into account the larger historical and rhetorical situation. The “hermeneutic circle” involves the progress from text to context and back again. Hermeneutic theory also recognizes that the reader’s socio-historical situation is more or less different from the original context, and so interpretation also involves uncovering and discounting any assumptions we have that might distort the meaning of the target text. The hermeneutic approach, then, recognizes the problems involved in communication and shows how those problems can be overcome.

In the modern hermeneutic tradition developed by Heidegger and Gadamer, the problem of context is radicalized, such that the differences between individual contexts are not easily bridged. The result is that we can never fully recover the original meaning but only an approximation, a “fusion of horizons” of author and reader. From this perspective, one could say that the task of interpretation is to not so much to recover the original meaning as to produce something new, the result of a creative dialogue between author and reader. A student of Gadamer, Wolfgang Iser, championed precisely this dimension of interpretation. Iser revalued the inevitable ambiguity of meaning as creative and productive.

Insofar as modern hermeneutics radicalizes the problem of interpretation, it leads into Deconstruction, which insists that meaning is “undecidable” on every level. Meaning is a function of context; the problem is that there are a virtually limitless number of contexts. On what basis can we decide which context is more relevant and which context is less relevant? The answer to this question is also subject to context, and there is no foundational context which is without metaphysical presuppositions. Ultimately, therefore, the choice of context for interpretation is arbitrary. René Girard, along these same lines, has suggested that interpretation is essentially sacrificial, since a moment of decision arbitrarily excludes other possible interpretations. We assume that words have stable meanings, but each iteration produces a new and unique context. By considering a variety of contexts which produce contrary meanings, the deconstructionist can quite easily declare a text irreducibly ambiguous. When we view context in a radical sense, not simply as an interpretive lens which can be picked up or put down at will, then the context of the interpreter will be understood as a prison from which he or she never escapes.

How then can a fruitful understanding emerge between two people through language? Hermeneutics finds an answer to these problems through empathy and good will. Under the best conditions, the author desires to communicate and will render every possible aid to the reader to aid in comprehension; and the reader desires to recover the author’s meaning without distortion. Communication may be problematic, but not impossible or unfruitful.

From Derrida’s point of view, however, even with all the good will in the world, the determination of contexts is still subject to wide vagaries of chance. In the words of Mallarmé, “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” [“A throw of the dice will never abolish chance”]. Derrida was also fond of invoking Nietzsche and his theory of the will to power. From this perspective, desire or self-interest inevitably produces distortions of meaning, and questions of meaning will be decided by the stronger will and/or structures of power. Girard’s theory of mimetic desire could be used to develop this point even further by showing that desire is not centered in the self but rather in the other, the model or rival. If communication is mediated by desire (we speak because, at the very least, we desire to say something), then meaning is decentered not just in reception but in origin. Not only is it impossible for us to mean what we say, we cannot even mean what we mean. Derrida uses Freudian concepts to make similar claims. We should recognize that Deconstruction is not just saying that precise meaning is impossible, while a rough approximation is within our grasp. The various contexts for interpretation are not just different but fundamentally opposed, and meaning is undecidable in a radical sense.

Gadamer attempted to enter into dialogue with Derrida during a conference in Paris in 1981 (I say “attempted” because it’s not clear that any genuine dialogue occurred). Gadamer began with a substantial opening statement entitled “Text and Interpretation,” and Derrida responded with a short statement which was later published under the title “Bonnes volontés de puissance (une réponse à Hans-Georg Gadamer,” [“Good Will to Power (A Response to Hans-Georg Gadamer)”]. The title combines Nietzsche’s and Gadamer’s “will” and serves as an ironic comment on Gadamer’s reliance on a “good will” in communication. In his response to Gadamer, Derrida states,


What to do about good will—the condition for consensus even in disagreement—if one wants to integrate a psychoanalytic hermeneutics into a general hermeneutics? This is just what Professor Gadamer was proposing to do last evening. But what would good will mean in psychoanalysis? Or even just in a discourse that follows the lines of psychoanalysis? Would it be enough, as Professor Gadamer seems to think, simply to enlarge the context of interpretation? Or, on the contrary—as I am inclined to look at it—would this not involve a breach, an overall re-structuring of the context, even of the very concept of context? Here I am not referring to any specific psychoanalytic doctrine but only to a question traversed by the possibility of psychoanalysis. Such interpretation would perhaps be closer to the interpretive style of Nietzsche than to that other hermeneutical tradition extending from Schleiermacher to Gadamer with all the internal differences that may wish to distinguish (such as were singled out last night). (Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer Derrida Encounter, translated and edited by Diane P. Michelfelder and Richard E. Palmer [Albany: State University of New York, 1989]: 53)


We can begin by noting that in our post-Romantic, individualistic age, “a breach” or a rupture, “an overall re-structuring” is rhetorically more appealing than consensus or “good will.” Derrida’s argument consists mostly of invoking the names of psychoanalysis and Nietzsche, and suggesting that Gadamer’s hermeneutic is inadequate to contain their insights, although Derrida doesn’t deign to engage with specifics.

Deconstruction is always subject to a pragmatic critique: while metaphysicians, even the “last” of them, may declare meaning to be “undecidable,” life goes on as before, and we seem to be largely successful in communicating with each other. Furthermore, our civilization depends upon some degree of success in communication, and our social order is fairly enduring. The threats to our social order are not so much from misunderstanding or ambiguity but real conflicts of interest. I don’t know if Derrida ever attempted to answer the pragmatic objection stated in these terms. He might have replied that his teachings have to do with philosophy and linguistic theory, not, for example, with two people negotiating the price of a car. Or he might have argued that the continued existence of civilization can best be explained in terms of chance or the will-to-power.

A problem with the pragmatic view of language is that it doesn’t help us decide, in any conclusive way, which context is more or less relevant to any particular problem of interpretation. Declaring that debates about meaning are purely an expression of rhetoric or persuasion, as Stanley Fish might do, doesn’t always help us to understand or answer the particular question at hand. Pragmatism can legitimately point out that some philosophical questions are merely artifacts of intellectual history and without any practical consequences, but in general the interpretation of literary and philosophical texts is essential to our knowledge of the human, self-knowledge.

Going back to the discussion at the recent GASC conference, the question was raised as to how we can know that the participants at the originary scene really had any common understanding of the sign and its meaning. In other words, how do we know that they really shared the same intentional context for understanding? What if, as Derrida claims, “every other is every bit other” [“tout autre est comme tout autre”] (The Gift of Death 68)? And if so, then the meaning of the originary sign would be undecidable in origin.

First of all, mimesis is the force which unifies the originary scene and the attention of all those upon it, but this point doesn’t necessarily prove that the participants shared the same understanding of the sign and its referent. The short answer here is that a shared attentional state is a necessary condition for language, and the proof is simply that language works. While each individual at the scene may differ in some ways, the originary hypothesis claims that they must understand the essentialmeaning of the sign in the same sense, or else the sign would not function as it did and does. We need to remember that language/meaning is fundamentally social and thus by definition shared. The argument of Generative Anthropology is that language functions as it does only on the condition that it is social in origin and throughout its history. Derrida’s mistake is the primal error of Romanticism, which is to suppose that the private scene of representation precedes the social, public scene of representation. If that were true, then yes, communication would be well-nigh impossible and any shared meaning undecidable. The hypothesis that all language shares a common origin validates the hermeneutic intuition that communication is possible.

The originary hypothesis speaks directly to the question of context posed by hermeneutics and Deconstruction. The one essential context for interpretation is the originary scene. Any particular instance of representation is understood as derived historically from that scene. And since our hypothesis stipulates that the essential meaning/function of language on the originary scene is ethical, we must consider the ethical functionality of all subsequent language, and in terms of the particular scene on which we find it. There are still a virtually limitless number of other contexts which may be relevant to our interpretation of a particular text or utterance. What justifies a new interpretation of a text is often the introduction of a relevant yet hitherto neglected context. But the originary scene, as a foundational context, allows us to sort out what is more relevant from what is less relevant in terms of context, on a relatively objective basis. Debates over the relevance of a particular context will no doubt continue, even among Generative Anthropologists; but we have a foundational context and method to which we may appeal. The agreement on the originary hypothesis is what saves us from indeterminate, futile debates, and renders our conversation truly fruitful and productive of shared knowledge and understanding.

When faced with a problem of interpretation, a conflict between two possible contexts/meanings, the classic move of hermeneutics is to expand the context, to find a larger context which bridges the two, such that the apparent contradiction can be reconciled from a larger perspective. Derrida, on the other hand, is famous for examining at great length what appear to be minor contexts, a footnote for example, although he is not shy about drawing rather large conclusions. From the perspective of Deconstruction, a broader context tends to veil the contradictions which emerge from more detailed analysis. Moreover, the abstract contexts in which metaphysics operates typically involve a host of unexamined and unsupportable presuppositions. Derrida recognizes that we can’t step outside of language to avoid all such presuppositions, so his solution is to begin at the micro-level to minimize our presuppositions while revealing with maximal clarity the internal contradictions of the text. The method of Generative Anthropology is rather different from both hermeneutics and Deconstruction. When faced with a problem of interpretation, we trace the problem back to a hypothetical originary scene of language, in order to identity what is really at stake in ethical terms. The originary scene is in one sense a minimal context, since it is constructed using Occam’s razor, with an absolute minimum of presuppositions. At the same time, as a context, the originary scene has maximal implications, since it is relevant to every instance of language.

Deconstruction recognizes correctly, à la Nietzsche and Freud, that problems of interpretation involve real conflicts of interest. Generative Anthropology, on the other hand, begins with the problem of human violence and shows how representation serves to ameliorate if not eliminate that problem. Derrida suggests rightly that without a foundational context, the choice of a context for interpretation is arbitrary, but he overestimates the incompatibility of contexts and is over-hasty in declaring the problem of origin an aporia. Deconstruction is arguably a prerequisite for Generative Anthropology, since it tells us why an originary hypothesis is necessary. So while Derrida would have undoubtedly rejected the possibility of an originary scene, we can still be grateful to him for helping to prepare the ground for the work of Eric Gans and those who build on his work.