Some time ago I described myself in Chronicle 433 as a kind of exiled French intellectual, “bracketing,” as they say, the new-world unsophistication that justifies, or at any rate corresponds to, the American intellectual world’s reliance on the norms of common sense and “scholarship” on the one hand, and “French theory” and the like on the other. Someone like Sartre (old generation) or Derrida (new generation) or, say, Zizek (post-new generation) have a European education that allows them at least to pretend to “know everything,” whereas for an American to know anything he must use footnotes and limit himself to a relatively narrow range of intellectual reference. Thus Europeans write “essays” where Americans write “books,” and the latter are either academic, selling a few dozen copies, or “popular,” in which case their ideas are few and banal and all too clearly expressed and backed up by a great deal of “data.”
Even as we make fun of the American intellectual’s mimetic tendency to rely on the European for his ontology, we should realize that it is a symptom of a genuine desire for originarity, however it may be perverted, or short-circuited, into a faith in the cultural anteriority of “older cultures” than ours and in the intelligentsia that embodies them. That the works of recent European thinkers have become ever more fragmentary, each book claiming to generate a radically new ontology, as they find less and less value in traditional order and more and more in thought-experiments of the extreme, inspired at a distance by the Holocaust (a factor most explicit in Agamben’s “bare life”), reflects their historical situation in societies that have to all appearances abandoned their demographic burden and are just living out their time on earth by consuming their capital.
Well, I don’t write like an American, but I don’t really write like a European either. Inspired by the most positive and consistent of European thinkers, I have stuck to the same basic hypothesis for over thirty years. I have recycled the need for an essayistic “theory of everything” into a minimalistic theory of the human that reveals that the simplicity we have been seeking is accessible as a stable originary ontology, one that can be indefinitely extended but that maintains a constant set of values derived from its originary model. GA makes no appeal to the privileged intuition of its creator, but only to an explicit model, carved by Ockham’s razor, that if it is challenged and improved upon will only further demonstrate its heretofore unappreciated necessity. GA, our new way of thinking, is indeed a product of the New World.
When I published The Origin of Language in 1981, I thought it would lead to all kinds of interesting dialogues about language in the various fields such as philosophy and linguistics that deal with it. Instead, I discovered that the members of those fields had no interest in any such dialogue, not even to mock or reject my theses, which, since they were not presented within the context (in our terms, the “scene”) of their field were therefore functionally non-existent.
Well, so be it. I have kept on collecting my essays into books, more for “posterity” than for the current generation, who would only read them if they were recommended by an authority in their field. A less institutionally bound notion than “field” of a group of persons connected by a common task and a set of agreed means to perform it is what Adam Katz calls a discipline. GA is, indeed, a discipline, and the fact that we are now preparing the eighth consecutive GA Summer Conference, not to speak of 19 years of Anthropoetics and over 450 Chronicles, demonstrates that it is more than a manifestation of my personal fantasy. But as the Bronx Romantic grows older, if not wiser, the world obliges him to understand with increasing clarity the paradox inherent in his enterprise, and this meditation on “anthrophilosophy” corresponds to the present stage of my reflection on the mode of discourse in which I am (and GA is?) engaged.
GA in general and these Chronicles in particular correspond to what I at least perceive as a need for a core definition of the human characterized by non-specialized minimalism. The very notion of a “definition” of the human is at odds with the way we think about natural phenomena, which follow certain patterns to which we give names, but which are not naïve reflections of a “Platonic” essence, such Ideas/essences being, on the contrary, hypostases of language. But unlike other natural and even living things, the human (and as a consequence, its culture, the totality of products of its unique faculty of representation) needs to be “defined” in order to mark its extraction from the natural world. We have long left to religious discourse the sole custody of such definitions, and as a result the very idea of defining the human is rejected as religious—at a time when many “religious” apologists, their originary confidence lost, attempt to express the “mysteries” of religion in a language of naive scientism.
There is nothing else like the originary hypothesis, no competing formulas, because no one else has had the chutzpah to claim that the human can be understood (one might say, best understood, but in fact no one else thinks the “human” can be understood at all) as originating in an event. That is, mind you, not simply as originating in an event, but as originating-in-an-event, i.e., understanding humanity as the sole “natural” entity that so originates, since all other phenomena that originate in events, including precisely the illocutory phenomena that result from “doing things with words,” are already explicitly human phenomena, derivative of the human itself. We know that eventness, événementialité, is human, but we shrink from the necessary conclusion that the human itself must begin as, must be, an event.
The minimalism of GA goes beyond the “essayistic” and does not precisely dictate an expository form. But the requirement for every reference to the originary hypothesis that it already be in the mind of the reader has limited GA’s public presence. The publication is done either in a restricted context, such as these Chronicles, where the reader can be expected to know (or to look up) the basic facts of the hypothesis, or in a more general context, where these facts have to be spelled out each time, which lends any GA publication independent of the Anthropoetics website a particular opacity. Consequently, these short and unerudite essays are a genre dictated by the theory they expound, and if one give some credit to that theory, as readers of these Chronicles may be presumed to do, then one must credit this format with being “ontologically” adequate to the exposition of the essential qualities of the human.
Is this “French”? René Girard, whose thought is the principal precursor of GA, writes in a clear and straightforward expository style, no doubt too much so in the eyes of the French (read: Parisian) intellectual establishment, but his writing is nonetheless not linked to a specific literary form. In contrast, I think it can be said that these Chronicles embody not merely a somewhat arbitrary set of “applications” of GA, but a model, for better or worse, of its exposition. GA is about events, but more specifically, it is about scenes, and short essays, like short stories, tend to be focused on a single or no more than a very few scene(s). Which helps to explain why I have found this format so useful in its application to the cultural world that my last several books have been essentially collections of Chronicles—as will largely be the book on antisemitism that Adam Katz and I are currently preparing for publication.
This kind of writing can never “command authority.” It can only be “speculative,” yet not in the traditional terms of philosophy/metaphysics. Philosophy, it might be said, begins with Parmenides, or perhaps even with Thales, but metaphysics, only with Plato’s Ideas, which made words into Beings and thereby created an ontology to rival the “naive” ontology of religious discourse, which figures the originary scene and its center in terms of already human-like volition. And there philosophy has remained, since it has never truly questioned the existence of language, contenting itself with prowling about its edges. The idea that Western philosophy had to wait until the 1950s for one of its adepts to notice that words “do things,” that language use is an act and not simply a “reflection” of/on reality, is a result of philosophy’s fear of infinite regression, of the paradox that would result if it somehow had to account for the existence of language, which could only be done by using language.
Generative anthropology, as we know, does not accept this gesture of defeat, which is needless to say never understood as such. On the contrary, it affirms that using language without proposing how language came about and in what context makes it impossible to understand not just language itself but the representational culture of which it is the heart and which is in turn the essential quality of the human.
I coined for this Chronicle the term “anthrophilosophy,” not because I think or even hope that it will become a new buzzword, but to express, rather awkwardly, the difference between GA and both science and philosophy, a difference that I have earlier designated by the term “humanistic anthropology.” GA is a “humanistic” rather than a natural science because it begins from a hypothesis that founds, and fully founds, the human-as-such. This aspect of the originary hypothesis is what corresponds to the “first principles” of philosophy about Being or whatever, which are founded on the (already-constituted) human, but forbear to present themselves thus.
The question then arises as to “how much” empirical science is present in the originary hypothesis. Although its principle is that some such hypothesis is required irrespective of our empirical knowledge—this is the intuitive basis that GA shares with religion—clearly some degree of knowledge is necessary beyond the abstract opposition of the cultural and the natural, or more specifically, of signs and representations to “real” objects, if only in order to form a plausible scenario of how the world of signs and representations might have arisen. The necessity of a scene is in a sense empirical; we witness human scenes every day, and never witness genuine animal scenes. For there are no genuine animal scenes, merely the illusion of one produced by, e.g., bees gathered around a dancer “showing them” where to find a new source of nectar.
The empirical detail that allows the hypothetical originary scene to be convincing, the minimal amount of “anthropology” in the social-science sense, is the contrast between the ape-style pecking order and the potential for mimetic chaos suggested by Girard’s powerful idea that with increasing intelligence=capacity for imitation, there would be an escalating potential for violence. That is, the study of human behavior in the latter’s Mensonge romantique, which showed that a certain model of the novel was founded on the revelation that desire, rather than “spontaneous,” is “contagious,” mediated by others, can be generalized to an aspect of the human condition that would, at a certain point, make the proto-human incapable of a merely one-on-one means of keeping order. The capacity of “desire” to become contagious within a group would require some form of order that would involve the whole group all at once.
At this point, one must have a scene, centralized around an object of common desire, and the only solution to the impending crisis must be what is the specific trait of the human in contrast to everything else: the sign. The amount of “anthropology” here is small but crucial; we must have knowledge of (1) a factor that leads to the breakdown of earlier order and (2) a factor that allows for a new, human solution to the problem. If (1) can be found in growing mimetic capacity, then (2) is in a sense already given, as the mediating reality of the sign, the first building block of language, and itself a (particularly facile) object of imitation. The idea that the first sign is an aborted gesture of appropriation makes use of the apparent fact that animals, unlike humans, do not point, that is, do not abort their gestures of appropriation and make them into signs. It is not essential to the hypothesis, but it allows it to become a scenario, to generate a mental image.
This is not philosophy, because it is not content with “principles” that require language to preexist them, nor is it “anthropology” based on empirical observation. Nor do we need to call it “anthropophilosophy.” It is, simply, generative anthropology. And once it exists, I can see no justification for the continued existence of these earlier forms of thought that ignore GA as if it had never been invented/discovered. The world will need time to figure this out, but I am confident it will catch on at some point.
Our model is only of value insofar as it simplifies and clarifies our understanding of the activities that are germane to the human itself. It is important to point out that the “humanistic” genre of the essay is not simply a short-form preparation for “more serious” analysis, as I might have believed in the early years of GA when I wrote a book with the somewhat pretentious title of The End of Culture. GA’s “first principles” are an originary model of the human, and in encountering in medias res some work or event, this model is always the one applied. But this is not a mechanical or repetitive act, given that human history is itself a continual re-explication of the originary model.
In a word, all previous critical work, philosophical or historical, is a form of “unconscious” generative anthropology. But having an explicit anthropology of the human scene provides a simple set of criteria by which we can grasp the unity of these human activities, most particularly including religious practice and discourse, which in the context of the originary scene are restored to their real anthropological importance.