Since the ninth edition of the Generative Anthropology Summer Conference is coming up, I thought I’d try to articulate as convincingly as I can why I have retained my faith in GA for over thirty-five years, and why I think you should too.
My last book, published by Davies, bore the title A New Way of Thinking. Calling your ideas a “new way of thinking” (NWT) might be compared to writing an autobiography entitled The Genius. Yet GA truly is a new way of thinking, one whose surface, given our limited numbers and resources, we have only begun to scratch. Since The Origin of Language (TOOL) appeared in 1981, much work has been done in the domain of “cognitive science,” about which some of my readers are far better informed than I. But I do not believe that there is anything essential to change in TOOL, any more than in Science and Faith, written only a few years later, which Adam Katz is in the process of republishing in his new Noesis “Deferrals and Disciplines” series. The fundamental idea of GA, that of a minimal, scenic anthropology founded on the deferral of violence through representation, is still valid, and until the rest of the intellectual world recognizes its validity, its inhabitants will continue to turn around in circles, expending time and energy in sterile and futile battles between believers and atheists, philosophers and neuroscientists, never grasping the scenic essence of human thought and of humanity itself.
Why then has our theory, which has been out there since 1981 and has generated 20 years of Anthropoetics and nearly 500 Chronicles of Love and Resentment, not caught on with the educated public? Because, as the aforementioned title makes clear, it is truly a new way of thinking, meaning that no one beyond our little group has a professional interest in its survival.
GA is not linguistics, nor philosophy, nor “anthropology” in the departmental sense, nor theology either—although it is fully compatible with the positive achievements of all of them, and particularly compatible with the anthropological content of religion. The Enlightenment shift from “analog” to digital has led us to forget that the religious view in which the sacred scene was the true source of knowledge long had plausibility on its side, and still retains a core of truth. This is a point I have made many times a propos of the anthropological kernel at the heart of the otherwise nonsensical theories of Creationism and Intelligent Design, which recognize that the emergence of the human from the natural world is not something that can be explained in “natural,” including Darwinian, terms.
The greatest lesson that I learned from René Girard was to take religion, which is scenic, as a fundamental source of anthropological knowledge—and to be skeptical of the anthropology implicit in philosophy, which is not. The Girardian, scenic component of GA alone allows its Derridean element of deferral to reveal its implicit anthropological content. Yet one cannot call Girard’s “mimetic theory”—a term that I doubt he himself invented and that I think misstates his achievement by seeking to assimilate it to the vocabulary of social science (one might say that generative anthropology does the same, except that the incongruity of its two terms suggests something a bit more problematic)—a full-fledged new anthropology or “new way of thinking.” The human is the scenic animal, but he (or she, although there were probably no women present at the originary scene—then again, if it took place in Africa, there were no white males there either) is also the speaking animal, and it is not enough, for it is still an act of faith, to subsume the issue of language under that of sacrifice by quoting John’s “In the beginning was the Logos.” Jesus could only be the Word because, when he appeared on earth, humans had already learned to use words, and I think one can hypothesize an origin for words on the basis of a less historically specific act of faith than Christianity.
Traditional religious and philosophical anthropologies have produced in recent years powerful critiques of scientism, the attempt to reduce the human to the biological, and more recently, to the cybernetic. Last year’s GASC keynote speaker, Raymond Tallis, has written many sharp and humorous essays on this subject, as well as proposing a theory of the human hand-as-pointer that seems, as far as it goes, quite compatible with GA’s theory of originary language. And in Victoria, there was a moment when Tallis seemed to see GA as a valid extension of his ideas into a full-fledged conception of the human. But Tallis is a philosopher, and GA is not philosophy; it is as incompatible with metaphysics as it is with scientism. Indeed, the positive understanding of the human embodied in philosophy is so thin that, as those who attended the 2013 meeting at UCLA will recall, in order to combat Darwinist reductionism, Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (Oxford, 2012) suggested enriching its ontology with the crypto-theological notion of teleology, not seeing that this only returns us to the debate, yet more sterile than that between cognitive philosophy and cognitive neuroscience, between “science” and “religion.” Indeed, Nagel’s introduction of teleology as an answer to Darwinism is nothing more than a shamefaced version of Creationism.
There is surely much to be learned from the study of philosophy, yet it is useless as a source of insight into originary anthropology. For even at its most anti-metaphysical, it is still metaphysics, and this because it fails to understand what metaphysics is, or at any rate, takes for granted, that is, that language is transparent to “thought,” and that consequently the declarative sentence/proposition is a given whose discovery by humans, not to speak of its “origin,” is irrelevant to the truth-seeking purpose of philosophy. Thus philosophers begin from “first principles” that have no anthropological basis. The “scenic imagination” I once wrote a book about, and that consists in imagining scenic origins for human institutions, played a certain role in Western thought from the beginnings of the Enlightenment on—as the title puts it, from Hobbes to Freud—but was never more than a philosophical byway. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is metaphysics’ reductio ad absurdum, affirming, to translate the author’s famous dictum into our own terms, that “of that of which we cannot speak in declarative sentences, we must be silent.” One of my ever-postponed projects has been to analyze in depth Wittgenstein’s later Philosophical Investigations, where he privileges the imperative over the declarative in discussions of the “language games” we play in performing practical tasks. (The idea of the ostensive as it functions in sacred ritual and its origin would have been too much.)
In any event, a more rigorous philosophy-like development of GA would surely revolutionize the study of what might still continue to be called philosophy. Similarly, the field of linguistics would no doubt benefit from an effort to assimilate the principles of GA, not necessarily by following the schema developed in TOOL, but by recognizing the fundamental necessity of a generative approach to the forms of language rather than merely the productions of already-established linguistic rules or paradigms.
I was tempted in composing this little pep talk to list some other areas in which the originary hypothesis might help humanity to understand itself. But on reflection, I think it best to let things develop without making an attempt to guide or even anticipate their development. It is no accident that GA began in the domain of French studies; Girard (and Derrida), however much they differ, are products of a French cultural intelligentsia less technical and hierarchical than the German (compare, as I do favorably, Sartre to Heidegger), more concretely engaged in political and religious issues—a domain to which I hope to have added an element of Jewish-Bronxian naivete. Nor is it an accident that the practitioners of GA are almost exclusively teachers of literature; it is in the verbal-esthetic domain, less rigorous and earthbound than reality-based studies, that new ideas can be tested on objects that are both accessible to everyone’s intuition yet sufficiently imbued with sacrality to define the otherness of a given historical moment. Although philosophers, classicists, students of the visual arts, even an occasional “real” anthropologist have contributed to our work, the bulk of our active membership remains in English and Comparative Literature departments.
We all have heard of, and have sometimes been, the professor who when attendance is bad berates the students who show up for the absence of the others. I honestly think we’re doing OK. Of course I’d like to see GA get more publicity and more recognition, but great ideas must mature slowly, and we’ve all seen much too much of the kind of intellectual sensationalism that appeals to resentment more than love and mimetic game-playing more than authentic communication. I’m very grateful to the members of the GASC and the readers of these Chronicles, however few or many you may be, for taking these ideas seriously in full awareness that, unlike more fashionably resentful ones, they do not promise to grease your path to academic success. But I do think that despite the victimary trends of recent years, there remains in today’s university, in the US and in the rest of the civilized world, enough intellectual or “academic” freedom to make the further exploration of these ideas possible.
As those who have read my online Girardian Origins of GA can attest, my very creation of GA was the outcome of failure, which I at times would like to think of as resulting from the deliberate calculations of my preternaturally wise unconscious, the qui perd gagne of Sartre’s analysis of Flaubert, but which Ockham’s razor tells me was just failure. Felix culpa, I think I can say, to see what some of you are doing with and to the ideas of GA in the forthcoming issue (20, 2) of Anthropoetics, which contains the work of three new contributors (two from Australia). This single issue constitutes in itself a persuasive argument that our NWT indeed has something to teach the world.
I’m not going to say that GA is the “definitive” solution to the question of human origin, but I think I can say quite “definitively” after 35 years that any such solution must involve something pretty close to the originary hypothesis, the origin of the sign on the human scene.
I will reserve for another Chronicle the question of whether it useful to point out, as I hinted at in Chronicle 484, that numbers too, like words, are human signs; they help us measure the universe, but are not “out there” in it. Yet whether GA can provide insights into the epistemology of the natural sciences, the scientists themselves must ultimately determine.
What we can know, and know that we can know, is that our representations are the products of the human scene, and that their inherent ethic demands that they be used to defer the destruction of the species that invented them. The purpose of our way of thinking is to implement that ethic. Nothing I have learned in the past thirty-five years has given me any reason to doubt GA’s vast potential for rethinking every aspect of what we call the human, in the service of humanity’s continued quest to postpone its threatening but still less than inevitable apocalypse.