This is the text of my talk at the Eighth Generative Anthropology Summer Conference (GASC) held at Victoria BC in June 2014. It was adapted from my contribution to a colloquium on Girard and Derrida in Paris in November 2013, sponsored by the Association Recherches Mimétiques.
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Although the memory of Jacques Derrida is still very much with us, I wonder to what extent young people today can imagine the impact of De la grammatologie when it appeared in 1967, nearly a half-century ago. In contrast to Derrida’s doctoral thesis on Husserl, La voix et le phénomène, and the articles that made up the collection L’écriture et la différance, all published that same year, De la grammatologie, which proclaimed the end of the book and the beginning of writing/écriture, was neither a collection of essays nor a monograph but a book, a whole, composed of parts, no doubt, of chapters on linguistics, on Lévi-Strauss, on Rousseau, but nevertheless a book—that is, in the author’s own paradoxical terms, a work of authority—that presented itself as the opening exposition of a new science of “writing” in the broadest sense—a science of the “trace.”
A Derridean science would certainly be a science like no other. But we need not, as was so common in the perverse heyday of deconstruction, turn the limits of the positive into a demonstration of the negative. In the same way as we are able to convert Derrida’s différance or deferral, the void of paradigmatic choice in which Derrida never thought to seek the trace of a deferred act in the real world, into the deferral of violence induced by the sacred in mimetic violence à la René Girard, I think that we can equally well understand the projected science of grammatology as something other than a paradoxical denial of the empirical reality of language. Indeed, I think we can conceive it as an intuition of human science in the strongest sense, a science of paradox rather than itself a paradox—something that would correspond rather closely to our own anthropological “science” of Generative Anthropology.
What is the real thrust of Derrida’s “science of écriture” or of inscription? It is to understand the phenomenon of the human, and perhaps by extension, all of life or all of existence, from the standpoint of the conservation of the trace. That is, grammatology would be the study of the sign, conceived as the trace of an act that re-marks a difference by means of a deferral or différance, a hesitation that is not merely a delay, but that opens up a Sartrean néant or nothingness in which the human mind, no longer ruled by “instincts,” becomes able to think by choosing in the first instance a single non-instinctual and indefinitely reproducible sign that bears the significance of the sacred object but not its interdicted sacrality. The original “paradigm” was simply the binary sacred/profane, and there was no need of a sign for the latter. But once the néant “out there” on the public scene transformed potential violent conflict into the peaceful sharing of food, the trace of the sign preserved in the mind was not a mere individual memory, a recalled sense-impression, but a mental reconstruction of the scene of representation as a whole, a space within which thinking as the free manipulation of signs became possible.
Thinking in the human, “non-instinctive” sense requires that the thinker be assured of the connection, “sacred” and/or “social,” between the sign and what it represents. To ask where this connection originates is to pose a question that cannot be answered within the context of deconstruction, which can only theorize the hesitation that separates the signifier from the signified within an already constituted paradigm. But we for our part should not hesitate to affirm that this connection derives from the hesitation, the deferral itself, which is in the first place the putting-aside of conflictive, mimetic violence. For hesitation within a constituted paradigm is only understandable as a real, “anthropological,” or even anthropogenetic act when it takes the form of a hesitation to take action in a situation where there is likewise a real danger of intraspecific conflict. And, precisely, GA’s simplest definition of the human is as the unique animal who, its mimetic intelligence having passed a certain threshold, is of greater potential danger to itself than is external Nature.
Why would signs multiply when the one originary sign had produced peace? In the space of deferral, all things are in contact with the sacred and potentially invested with significance. The sacred is at first the “violent” that must be avoided, but this violence is not an abstraction, it is rather the product of the appetite aroused by the central object. It would be better to say, not that “the sacred is the violent, the violent is the sacred,” but that the sacred is the violent whose violence has been deferred. In the space of this deferral, the sign is not a simple abstraction, but a form that evokes its object; and in the communal peace thus established, however fleetingly, the differences among objects become possible objects of observation. Thus the traces of experience can come to be incorporated into a language, a set of syntagmatic possibilities whose various positions are indeed, as Derrida saw, filled by choosing within paradigms. All of this, of course, is not present at the origin, but it begins at the origin with the phenomenon of deferral, with our putting “instinct” aside to instead represent to each other the object of our “instinctive” appetite.
In a passage whose “positive” nature is visible through the veil of precautions dictated by philosophical prudence, Derrida (much more explicitly than in the chapter that actually bears this title) gives us a glimpse of what his “grammatology as a positive science” might have looked like. This is a discussion of Lévi-Strauss’ famous “writing lesson” from Tristes tropiques (the anthropologist having demonstrated the use of writing to an Amazonian tribesman, the latter creates by scribbling lines on a paper a “written” document of his own to impress his fellow tribesmen with his authority). Here the question is raised as to the relationship between the birth of writing systems (in the narrow sense) and hierarchical power. We find in this passage a rare, perhaps unique example in Derrida of the use of the word différer, to defer and/or differ, in a very nearly “Girardian” sense:
It has long been known that the power of writing in the hands of a small number, of a caste or a class, has always been contemporary with hierarchization, which we will call “political différance,” which is both the distinction among groups, classes, and levels of economico-techno-political power, and the delegation of authority, a power deferred, abandoned to a means of capitalization. This phenomenon has been going on since the beginning of sedentary life, with the constitution of stocks at the dawn of agricultural societies. . . . All this structure appears as soon as a society begins to live as a society, that is to say, with the origin of life in general [dès l’origine de la vie en général], when, on quite heterogeneous levels of organization and complexity, it becomes possible to defer presence, that is, expenditure [la dépense] or consumption, and to organize production, that is, the reserve in general. This takes place long before the appearance of writing in the narrow sense, yet it is true, and we cannot neglect this fact, that the appearance of certain writing systems two or three thousand years ago was an extraordinary leap forward in the history of life. (De la g, p. 190)
This “deferred power” of authority in the universe of writing is, in GA terms, nothing but a new form of the deferral of the “aborted gesture of appropriation” that leads to the emission of the sign in our originary scene. The difference is nonetheless fundamental. Whereas for GA, the dominance of the sacred center with respect to the periphery reflects the hypothesis that the human emerges in escaping the hierarchy of the animal world, Derrida, while attempting to situate writing “in the broad sense” at the origin of humanity, or even at that of “the history of life” itself, can only understand its accumulation of a “reserve” of power within the framework of a hierarchy. This situation of human hierarchy at the origin is precisely the defining postulate of postmodern victimary thought.
Thus the chapter entitled “On grammatology as a positive science,” in which Derrida might have been expected to begin to develop his own “positive science” of writing by integrating his discovery of la différance into the history of “life in general,” after a lengthy discussion of the historiography of writing systems, ends with a sentence-paragraph that fills an entire page with a long series of denunciations of the servility of writing in the service of power:
That the access to the written sign insures the sacred power to make existence maintain itself in its trace and to know the general structure of the universe; that all clerisies, whether or not they exercise political power, were established at the same time as writing and as a result of their having at their disposition graphical power [la puissance graphique]; that strategy, ballistics, diplomacy, agriculture, taxation, penal law are linked in their history and in their structure to the establishment of writing . . . [22 more lines] all this refers us to a common, radical possibility that no determinate science, no abstract discipline, can think as such. (141)
Here we may observe that Derrida’s refusal to see in the néant of deferral anything other than a deconstruction of the scene of “presence,” which in his view constitutes not the human as such, but the myth of the human and the sacred created by “power,” is directly linked to the “late” revolutionary passion so typical of the European intellectuals of his generation and even of ours, that consists in seeing humanity’s “original sin” of inequality as in fact originary, inherent in the very use of signs that makes us human. The consequence of this is that, ignoring the egalitarian relationships among the members of the simplest human societies, Derrida equates the birth of the sign with the birth of hierarchy, as if an asymmetrically superior “father-figure” on the example of Freud’s Totem and Taboo furnished us with our model of a Subject/divinity. A passage in the chapter on Rousseau’s Essai sur l’origine des langues makes this clear—as clear as Derrida ever makes his anthropology in tension/opposition/continuity with that of Rousseau:
Between the family as a natural society and the organization of civil society, there are relations of analogy and image: [quoting Rousseau] “The chief is the image of the father, the people is the image of the children, and all, being equal and free, only alienate their freedom for their own benefit [pour leur utilité]. . . . The only difference is that, in the family, the father’s love for his children repays him for the services he renders them, and in the State, the pleasure of rule replaces [supplée à] that of love . . .” (374)
Derrida’s point here is that the dichotomy that Rousseau draws between nature and culture is never definable; the “supplementary” transformation of family love into love of power “must be” related to the incest prohibition, which Derrida then shows to be undefinably natural and cultural in Rousseau’s text, and presumably in any text. But in revealing this undefinable glissement, Derrida in effect accepts Rousseau’s (non-) transition between animal and human hierarchy, between the father and the chief—leaving aside Rousseau’s point that as “children,” all are “equal and free,” which in our terms, but not in Derrida’s, sets the chief-father’s rule under the rubric of firstness.
This citation of Rousseau’s father-chief filiation cannot bear the weight of an affirmation of causality, nor is the passage from animal to human hierarchy marked here as it is in Freud’s father-murder scenario. On the contrary, it is elided, just as the direction of the dependency of hierarchy with respect to writing (language, deferral…) is undecidable. In effect, no light can be shed on the “original sin” of the sign in the absence of an explicitly originary theory of the human. For Derrida the sign always already embodies, before the “exploitation of man by man,” the original sin of non-presence and in consequence, of the “supplementary” myth of presence. It goes without saying that none of this is simply chimerical; in order that hierarchy may emerge later, its possibility must from the outset be an attribute of the human as created by the sign, and therefore an inherent possibility of representation in general. The space of deferral, born in reciprocity, is one into which hierarchy can always insert itself. The passage from firstness to equality in the originary event is not guaranteed by the structure of the scene itself, once other factors such as the “surplus” intrude.
It is in this space of deferral that the “preservation of the trace” as language takes on its uniquely human character, one that gives the lie to attempts such as Engels’ dialectic of nature to see human cultural systems as merely a more complex variant of prehuman systems. Derrida’s reluctance to develop the hints he drops about writing’s place in “the history of life in general” should be explained less as a failure of nerve than as a reaction of prudence. Derrida intuitively understands that when metaphysics refuses to think the origin of language, that is its way of sacralizing language, not of reducing it to a phenomenon of nature. Similarly, the deferral that deconstructs this metaphysical sacralization, however “unanthropologically” explained, is never other than a specifically human concept.
As I tried to show nearly two decades ago in “Plato and the Birth of Conceptual Thought” (Anthropoetics II, 2; January 1997), what unites the two great components of “Western civilization,” the Hebrew and the Greek, is an explicit faith in the objectivity of language, represented in its “mature” form by the declarative sentence or proposition. The declarative sentence encompasses in its “timeless” predication both the firstness and the deferral of the originary ostensive use of language. Instead of designating the center as an interdicted space in which violence is deferred, it takes this center, or “subject,” into itself, and attaches by predication a new “truth” about it that goes beyond the mere guarantee of significance granted by the nominal that designates it. (I suggested in The Origin of Language that this would occur as a replacement for a failed imperative: if I can’t get you the scalpel, I tell you it’s in the other room.) That is, the space of deferral that separated, in the first instance, the peripheral humans from the sacred center designated by the sign has now been incorporated within language itself as a model of the scene, a space of fiction, the locus of all thinking.
In what since the Greeks we call “metaphysics” or simply “philosophy,” it is the notion of the Ideas as subjects-of-propositions that make of words such as “the Good,” “the Beautiful,” “Courage” (= “the courageous”), independent entities in our mind, neither things that we can manipulate nor beings that we can invoke like gods in order to ask them to aid us in our enterprises, but concepts. As we see no doubt most clearly in the Gorgias, for Plato, following Parmenides, “the Good” in its “true” universal sense, not my good or yours, but the Good of the universe as a whole, must “exist” in the sense of having a real content ultimately referenceable in the real world. And the only proof needed for this assertion is the existence of the word (“Idea”) “good” as a noun that can take predicates in propositions that possess the quality of being true or false, that is, in Parmenidian terms, that are found on the Way of Truth and not on that of opinion, of doxa. Metaphysics does not trust people with language; “sophists” may “make the worse cause appear the better.” But it trusts language-as-such as something other than language, as the repository of Ideas.
In the world of the Jews, an astonishingly similar story may be told, a point no one ever appears to have noted. When Moses finds himself in Exodus 3 before the burning bush and when he asks for the name of the God who has addressed him, God answers “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” “I am/will be what I am/ will be.” That is, in the place of the name that Moses asks him to supply (I might note that French uses the same word [nom] for both “name” and “noun”), God gives him a declarative sentence, a sentence that implies that simply to be what one is, is the unique privilege of God, that he alone can say this without qualification, and that if we want to and are able to say it at all, it is because his act of creation has granted us this privilege, more precisely, that of using language. And although it is self-evident that without language, no one can say “I” and him- or herself become a “subject” capable of receiving predicates, it does not appear to be self-evident that the ability to use language is more than an ordinary product of Darwinian natural selection.
The difference between the Hebrew and Greek discoveries of the centrality of the proposition, whose essentially deferred, non-spontaneous or -simultaneous composition is theorized in Derrida’s différance, is that in Hebrew culture, the source of the freedom that permits us to say that we are what we are, and also to speak of the beautiful and the good, remains where it had always been, in the center of the sacred/human scene. Which is to say that whereas in the Greek world, the cogito, the demonstration that the thinking Self is the possessor of being, had to await Descartes, the world of Hebrew firstness had already formulated nearly two thousand years earlier the cogito of the central Subject who bears the name-of-God.
Or rather who had once borne that name, and others as well, until the Hebrews made the discovery that in fact God has no name, that we cannot call on him, that he is what he is and that any abbreviation of that sentence that we might be tempted to use as a vocative is simply forbidden. For we know that Jews, even “bad Jews” like myself, never pronounce the “name of God.” “Jahveh” is not a word of the Hebrew language.
From the standpoint of a certain irony, one might find it bizarre that of the two chief sources of GA, Girard and Derrida, it would be the Christian and not the Jew who is revealed as the more faithful guardian of this great Old Testament truth, while the Jew is the one who, having “deconstructed” metaphysics, that is, Greek thought, as the source of all serious thinking, finds nothing remaining but… deconstructed metaphysics. To my mind the greatest contribution of René Girard to Western thought is to have understood that of the two currents that flow together to form the Western soul, it is the Hebrew current that is the more authentically anthropological and that alone has allowed the Greek to spread over an entire continent and finally to the entire planet. If Girard taught me one thing, it is not to waste time seeking spurious philosophical profundities, but to find elaborated in the great literary tradition of the West the anthropological truths first enunciated in the Bible. For it is there that we encounter more clearly than elsewhere the originary truth concerning human violence and the unique defense that humanity has erected against it: representation, language, religion—culture. The declarative sentences that are the guarantees of peace do not emerge, as the philosophers would have it, all by themselves. They come from the center of the scene where violence had been concentrated in detaching itself from human appetite, the center that, in order for us to understand its uniqueness, must—this is the great Hebrew revelation—name itself with the non-name of God, ehyeh asher ehyeh.
In a most significant historical discovery, Seth Sanders demonstrated in The Invention of Hebrew (U Illinois, 2009) that in the biblical Hebrew world, alphabetic writing, far from being an instrument of authoritarian domination, was rather a tool of proto-democratic liberation. The Hebrew world of alphabetic writing, characterized by a much higher rate of literacy than was typical in the societies of the time, where cuneiform writing was confined to a guild of scribes, was opposed in the name of God’s written law to all tyranny and rigid hierarchy, which is to say, in GA terms, that it emphasized the subordination of hierarchy as firstness to the sacred center and its originary model of non-hierarchical reciprocity; every human relationship, equal or unequal, is subject to the mediation of God’s sacred centrality. Our generative reflection on the human takes its point of departure from the liberating différance effected by the écriture of the Old Testament, the Torah.
Finally, I think what allows us to equate GA with grammatology, the theory and history of the “retention of the trace,” is that Derrida’s grammatology was never really a “positive science,” despite the passing temptation we have noted toward a “history of life” a la Hegel (or Engels)—an impulse that has never tempted GA. To the extent that GA can inspire a “positive science” of history, this “positive” nature would be essentially retrospective. We must be able to explain the past, but to explain at the same time how this past does not let us, save in the narrowest terms, predict the future. It seems to me that la différance, understood as the originary néant or free space of our grammatology, is ideally adapted to this role. For it is in this space of reflection that those who participate in the scene free themselves from the scene, that is, appear upon the “other scene,” which is not that of the unconscious (or is in a very un-Freudian sense) but that on which we can contemplate the real world, or if we like, recalling Gaston Bachelard, that of the laboratory. It is by deferring their tendency to mimetic violence, to speak in Girardian terms, that humans find the means to explore the world, and in so doing, that they find the material means that facilitate other forms of deferred exchange: at first, that of the gift analyzed by Mauss (in which the later Derrida, in a utopian inversion, refused to see a “true” gift), and finally, that of the “free” market.
It is obvious that one cannot at the same time theorize freedom and predict the products of that freedom. Human history is not linear, but to the extent that it has a meaning—always provisional, as, among other apocalyptic potentialities, the specter of the Iranian bomb reminds us—it tends toward an ever-increasing number of degrees of freedom. But without attempting to predict what this freedom will bring us, our “grammatology” supplies a configuration, a scene of representation, within which deferral continues to take place, and where it expresses itself not only theoretically but “esthetically” in order to permit us better to grasp the human world as itself worthy of sacred concern and requiring of us a situated moral judgment.
What Derrida adds to the schema of Girard to make GA (“the deferral of violence through representation”) is that element of delay, of différance, of Nothingness, of language, by means of which alone our mimesis can be creative. What the mere discharge of tension in the immolation of the victim does not permit, it is the element of representation that makes it possible, and that makes us human: a moment of generative freedom. It is on that element of freedom that we found our science, human and not “natural,” of the trace and its inscriptions—our grammatology.
One final observation will I think make this clearer. Those at all familiar with GA know that its fundamental configuration is that of the scene. Language and other forms of representation, however they are practiced by individuals, are only understandable as manifesting themselves on a scene, which is not in principle an individual but a communal space.
But then the fundamental state of affairs suggested by the term “grammatology” might seem incompatible with that of GA; one imagines the writer, isolated from his reader, “inscribing” signs that “conserve the trace” of an idea only to the extent that the inscription takes place outside of the “immediate” contact with others that the term “scene” suggests. And indeed, Derrida’s critique of presence is on the surface an expression of anti-scenicity, a denial that a human scene can ever truly be actualized—and more than a suggestion that scenes that bear this pretension, that is, the rituals of culture from the everyday use of language to the rites of religion and public spectacle, or the “performatives” that Austin brought into the philosophical canon (much like M Jourdain who discovered one day that he had been speaking prose all his life), are all one-sided impositions of authority disguised as moments of a free exchange.
But however distasteful I must say I found Derrida’s politics, it would be unfair to his thought to take his denial of “presence” in a narrow sense. There is indeed a naïve conception of immediacy that the history of metaphysics adopts, and that Rousseau in particular exemplifies as a guarantee of pre-romantic communion. But by opening within human interaction the space of deferral, and even in calling it écriture, writing, Derrida is not in fact denying the human scene but adding the most significant element to its description. I have pointed out that Sartre’s néant does essentially the same thing, but in Sartre it is not at all a question of a human community, but of the presence of the world, the en-soi, to the subject, and to make the néant a scenic concept in the sense of GA would be, however justified, without an anthropological ground in the conceptual universe of its creator. Derrida’s non-presence, in contrast, is already a form of human interaction that GA “merely optimistically” translates as the real, cultural presence of human beings to each other.
It is here that I find the justification, at least for the purpose of giving us all a useful shock, for calling GA a “grammatology.” Derrida is right to insist that the mode of communication in speech and in a three-thousand-year-old inscription are essentially the same. The virtual scene on which we encounter the one is not essentially different from the “real” scene on which we encounter the other, because scenes as such, that is, human scenes, are never “real,” in the sense of a pre-human instinctual contact with the world and with others. The danger of the notion of the “scene,” a danger that Girard’s emissary murder has not altogether escaped, is the illusion of immediacy, of what Eric Voegelin in a broader context called “compactness.” Voegelin was not fond of “compactness,” a feature of the societies of the archaic god-king emperors, because it was a figure of unfreedom. In contrast, deferral, whatever the politics of its creator, is a figure of freedom. The form of communication called écriture to emphasize its non-immediacy is likewise a manifestation of human freedom, and it is in this sense that I think we can call GA an understanding of the human in terms of its écriture, that is, a grammatology.