The ninth GA Summer Conference took place on June 5-6, 2015, in the near-idyllic setting of High Point University, NC. This was the third meeting sponsored by Matthew Schneider, who has done more than anyone to hold this group together, beginning with the 2008 conference at Chapman University at a time when it wasn’t at all clear that Andrew Bartlett’s heroic 2007 “GA Thinking Event” would become an annual tradition. This year there were only eleven participants (plus Andrew via Skype) but the papers were all on topic. There were two new faces: René Harrison, a blind scholar from New Zealand and long-time GAList member, whose paper made use of the epistemological insights that sightlessness brings to originary analysis, and Magdalena Złocka-Dąbrowska, a professor at the Cardinal Wysynski University in Poland, whose enthusiasm for GA was a shot in the arm for our New Way of Thinking. The group of eleven contained persons from no fewer than seven countries: the US, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and Poland. GA may not be widely practiced, but its adherents are certainly well distributed. Our next conference will be in Nagoya, Japan, and the last three countries listed above were mentioned as likely sites for the future.
I have always avoided seeking publicity by other means than simply putting our ideas out in books and on the Internet, and this conference, as did the last one, vindicated this policy by demonstrating the capacity of the originary hypothesis to retain most of its early adherents, to acquire new ones, and to serve as the basis for a variety of cultural analyses. As the years go by, the conferences become increasingly grounded in GA’s core ideas. In the early years some papers had only the remotest connection with these ideas and some not even that; others were purely Girardian and made no effort to take GA’s fundamental differences with Girard into account. In the last two events, this has no longer been the case. It is a great source of encouragement to witness the power of a hypothesis that maintains itself without dependency on publicity and celebrity.
The conference theme, the “Digital Humanities” (DH), was one that I felt would be better dealt with by writing a few Chronicles before the conference to provide a basis for discussion rather than presenting a formal paper, and the two stimulating discussions we held on this topic, divided between more practical questions (DH as reflecting the breakdown of the humanistic culture, in the academy, as a pedagogical tool…) and more theoretical ones (DH as a source of anthropological insight into the difference between the religio-cultural and the mathematical), seemed to justify this judgment.
What provides the staying power of the originary hypothesis is its combination of minimality and openness. Unlike the Hegelian dialectic, it denies the possibility of an end of history (and my acceptance of Fukuyama’s thesis about liberal democracy was as a minimal basis for human organization, a new beginning rather than an “end” of history—one that, as history since 1989 has shown, is far less easy to get going than seemed likely after the end of the Cold War). Any cultural reality, from an Internet meme to an artwork to a political or religious institution, may be understood as offering a new variation on the scene of representation’s capacity to defer conflict. In relation to DH, the hypothesis aids us in understanding both how algorithms and religious and esthetic works and discourses share the scenic feature of representation, and why the latter can never be reduced to the former, even if we have no way of denying the power of the digital to approximate the results of the cultural.
I do hope that in the future neuroscientists who study the brain seeking insights into the phenomenon of human consciousness will become aware of GA. The scene of representation maintains its paradoxical stasis through the “vertical” dimension of the sign that philosophers such as Sartre have grasped in their fashion, but that neuroscientists persist in attempting to reduce to a higher form of conditioned reflex. They should recall Chomsky’s refutation of Skinner’s Pavlovian conception of language, but then realize that Chomsky’s conception of a “language module” and his characterization of language by recursivity, while adequate to the terms of that debate, need to be supplemented by an originary theory of language before they can provide a basis on which to establish how this new dimension is implemented in the brain.
How indeed is the collective phenomenon of language instanced in the brain? How is the sign present in such a way that it can be manipulated freely on an internal scene whereas the memory traces that make up the “meaning” or “signified” by themselves cannot? How, in a word, is the freedom of the human mind implemented in the brain? “Freedom” is an absurdity in a causal system, yet merely declaring that the brain is a biological computer whether we like it or not fails to distinguish between the tool and the user who picks it up and decides when to start and stop using it. No speculation, however brilliant, can substitute for neurological research on this point; but similarly, no amount of research will find the answer if the researcher doesn’t know what question to ask, and thinks that his task is to demonstrate that freedom is an illusion, that some quantum-mechanical version of Laplace’s determinism is a necessity of the “scientific method.”
(On this point, I have not forgotten my promise in Chronicle 487 to offer some speculations about the supposed movement of natural science, more particularly of physics, toward a “theory of everything.” I have begun a series of conversations with a physicist colleague in hopes of understanding how scientists themselves view the current developments that seem to me, as a reasonably well-informed layman, to be adding more new uncertainties with each new discovery. Does this reflect the limitations of the human scene of representation, or only of its current stage? Does Thomas Nagel’s speculation about the possibility of a “teleological” element in nature correspond to something more than a shamefaced recourse to supernaturalism? I don’t expect to have groundbreaking answers to these questions, but I do hope to understand a little better how the researchers themselves conceive their task.)
After 30+ years of GA in various guises, please forgive me for speculating a little on “the future of GA.” Certainly the power of the model furnished by the originary hypothesis has scarcely been tapped, even in its home area of literary study. When one of the participants asked me what GA material was available in the area of narratology, I had to admit that I had nothing to offer but a bit of theorizing about “originary narrative” and some broader esthetic notions in the historical section of Originary Thinking. How would GA enrich and update Girard’s model of the European novel in Mensonge romantique? Can the novel be truly understood as a conversion narrative in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West, where “conversion” includes not merely knowledge of sin in order to avoid it, but the experience of sin in order to transcend it, as in Augustine’s “make me chaste, but not yet”? Is the notion of the sinful narrative as a cautionary tale, which is very much what the novel gave itself out to be in the days of Richardson and Laclos, not inseparable from a constitutive “hypocrisy” that can also be seen as the overlay of the paradoxical model of GA upon Girard’s moral template? Is the productivity of mimesis through the sign, as both exemplified and denied in the Girardian model, not explicable as a temporalization of the originary paradox that turns the time of deferral to creative use while denying its validity in the pragmatic world? And what of the Bildungsroman as exemplified by Austen and her predecessors, by Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, or by Dickens; must the novel be “tragic” to be authentic and avoid the “popular”? Clearly the domain of literature, not to speak of the other arts, has many tasks for GA, as do all the other fields of “anthropology” broadly conceived.
The real point of such speculations is to point up the openness of GA’s paradigm. GA is not a doctrine and its centralization, not of a set of principles or axioms but of a minimally articulated scene, makes it truly a new way of thinking whose limits are undefinable. The apparent near-exhaustion of the metaphysical paradigm, as I believe we witness in Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (see Chronicle 444), certainly leaves the door open for new approaches, and the thematization of the human scene of representation as opposed to using (declarative) language as a proxy for the human seems to me an unequivocal advance that leaves unaffected mathematics and logic, for which the scene can simply be bracketed, or reduced, as in the previous Chronicle, to the one-bit activity of counting.
The ambition of GA is to be not a regional but a universal paradigm, applicable in all cases where the intellectual world currently accepts the metaphysical model in which propositions are just “there” and the earlier stages of human language need not be considered. We might call this extended Platonism. It does no apparent harm in mathematics, where the one-bit attribution of significance is, if not independent of its human origin, at least, because of its axiomatic construction, independent of its specifically human, paradoxical basis (whence the interest of Gödel’s proof in demonstrating the impossibility of imposing a closed formal system of truth-generation on an infinite set of countable elements—let alone an uncountable one). But although philosophers today would no doubt reject as naïve and even “primitive” the notion that the Ideas exist independently of humans, they never seem to realize that by accepting the proposition as a “natural” means of expression they are acquiescing to the real core of Plato’s thought, which remains the foundation of (Western) philosophy.
This may sound like the coming out of the closet of la folie des grandeurs, but it is consonant with GA as a way of thinking that has survived for over thirty years, and whose adherents have come to apply it with ever greater seriousness and in ever greater depth to a variety of cultural questions. No doubt a certain element of personal loyalty is involved; no one is altogether lacking in charisma. But not to say more, all of us know that no one can expect to improve his or her academic standing as a result of an interest in GA—except insofar as GA can provide him or her with a deeper understanding of whatever aspect of human culture is in question. As most readers of this Chronicle must realize, the only extant alternative to GA is simply to dismiss the questions for which it proposes answers as unimportant.
A philosophical friend said to me not long ago that as thinkers, we shouldn’t be interested in language itself, only in how it is used and what it lets us do. I profoundly disagree with that statement, but recognize that this is truly the voice of philosophy, that is, of metaphysics. I think I can say that aside from theology, there is no other non-metaphysical way of thinking than GA. As the current victimary paroxysms on campuses and elsewhere suggest, the rest of the world may be forced to pay attention to this fact sooner rather than later.