I have often attributed the failure of generative anthropology to achieve popularity to my ineptitude for publicity. But if as I (we?) believe, GA is a genuine “new way of thinking,” a breakthrough in understanding language and the human in general, then it shouldn’t require a Donald Trump for its spokesman. Nor is it enough to bewail the compartmentalization of the academic world. It’s too easy to say that linguists and anthropologists don’t read The Origin of Language (TOOL—a second edition of which is, btw, now in preparation) because it wasn’t written by a linguist, or simply because they aren’t interested in new ways of thinking about language. No doubt the book was not based on extensive fieldwork, but there’s enough empirical data there (“Fire!”, “Scalpel!”) to persuade a skeptic. The fact is that as a truly new way of thinking, GA’s theoretical and deontological implications are unsettling, perhaps to the point that I have not developed them as far as I should have. So I thought that to begin the new year (my 75th), I should do something to remedy this situation.
When I came to write my second GA book, The End of Culture (UC Press, 1985), I wanted to add a subtitle. Still thinking in French, I transliterated the word génétique, “related to genesis,” into English and proposed Toward a Genetic Anthropology. But my editor pointed out that genetic implies not generation but genes, so we changed it to “generative,” despite the unfortunate confusion with Chomsky’s generative grammar, which had a much higher profile in the humanities than it does today. I have always admired Chomsky’s work in linguistics, including his decisive refutation of Skinner’s conception of language as a conditioned reflex, while finding his radical politics distasteful. But dispassionately to connect the two facets of Chomsky’s intellectual personality offers an important lesson, one that has made clear to me after thirty years that the term “generative” is indeed an object of contention between generative grammar and generative anthropology.
Claiming that the originary function of language is to defer conflict rather than to enunciate truths would not be a controversial point if it were by enunciating truths, that is, by speaking in declarative sentences, that the conflict were alleviated. The difficulty lies rather in GA’s fundamental claim that language is in the first place ostensive and only derivatively declarative; that it is not predication and propositional structure that first bring peace to the human world, but that they are only possible once human violence has been deferred by means of more elementary syntactic forms. For example, in Max Müller’s 19th-century account, “early man” was beset by false beliefs as he tried to explain the natural world in crudely anthropomorphic terms, and human progress over the centuries was able to replace these false or mythical propositions with empirical ones; yet the question of the origin of the proposition itself is never raised. This is quite different from seeing the declarative sentence as a triumph of objectivity, a higher stage of the consciousness generated at the outset by the need to defer the violence attendant on mimetic desire by sacralizing the first collective object of human desire with the sign of the-name-of-god.
It is the burden of this Chronicle to point out the intellectual connection between Chomsky’s linguistics and his extremist political views. However extreme these may be, we must understand them in the context of Chomsky’s powerful intellect. Most social scientists are on the Left, a political position that among other things embodies the Enlightenment’s hostility to religion. If Chomsky is farther left than the rest, he is also a stronger defender than the rest of the primacy of the declarative sentence, to the point that generative grammar would banish from linguistics theorizing about its origin in simpler forms, forms that visibly imply the common origin of signification and sacralization. It can hardly be a simple matter of idiosyncrasy that the West’s greatest proponent of the primacy of the declarative sentence is also an extreme oikophobe or hater of his own civilization, even going so far as to express sympathy with Holocaust denial.
The ad hominem that concerns me here is not addressed to Dr. Noam Chomsky but to “man” in general, and more precisely, “man” in our own, most advanced civilization. What precisely is the link between the two halves of Chomsky’s intellectual identity, the primacy of the declarative and Western oikophobia? What relationship does his extreme political stance, which I will henceforth simply call “Chomskian,” bear to the Enlightenment rationalism that has made the West the source of modern science and technology?
The originary hypothesis as developed in TOOL suggests that the relationship between the ostensive and the declarative is analogous to that between religion and philosophy: the second has its roots in the first, but denies them. The first, ostensive word is the “name-of-God”; in contrast, the predication that inaugurates the declarative is a substitute for the production of the object requested in an imperative (“Scalpel!” – “The scalpel is in the sterilizer”). For language to tell about the world, it must transcend its use to defer conflict through evoking or supplying sacred beings or objects. To deny this process and present the declarative as the basic linguistic form is to deny the religious origin of language itself and consequently, the emergence of objectivity from within the world of the sacred. Chomsky’s generative grammar radicalizes the traditional grammatical paradigm by classifying the imperative (and by implication the ostensive) not merely as defective sentence forms but as derived from the declarative. In this manner, every utterance can be considered a proposition: when I cry “Fire!” what I really mean is “there is a fire here”; by “Scalpel!” I mean “I want you to give me the scalpel.”
Evolution normally proceeds from the simple to the complex. Those linguists who do consider the “incremental” as opposed to Chomsky’s “saltational” emergence of the declarative have no conception of an originary purpose of language, and content themselves with speculating on the passage from one-element to two-element and more complex utterances without any concern for motivation, let alone for an event-centered hypothesis. (See, for example, Brady Clark, “Syntactic Theory and the Evolution of Syntax” Biolinguistics 7:169.) Generative grammar is not concerned to follow the historical evolution of language even to this extent; it precludes the examination of this evolution, which is assumed to take place via a Darwinian “saltation” or leap.
That the Jacobins, the most extreme of the French revolutionaries, opposed a deified Reason to the God of the Church clarifies the correspondence between Chomsky’s linguistic posture and his political radicalism. For the radicals of the French Revolution, the ritual world of the Old Regime had to be swept away. Meters replaced feet and inches. Heads rolled. The reign of the declarative sentence or proposition—of “facts” and their logical consequences, of empirical reason, of scientific method, has continued virtually unchallenged since the revolutionary era, giving rise to vast technological and scientific progress. Today the goddess Reason sits firmly on her throne—yet her worshipers remain as enraged as Robespierre. The generative theory that can explain this is not generative grammar but generative anthropology.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, some claimed that “socialism” had not failed, but that “it was never really tried.” Should we perhaps say that the Enlightenment too, the attempt to organize human society on the basis of “reason,” of facts and deductions from them, has “never really been tried”? (Cf Bruno Latour’s Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, La Découverte, 1991.) In day-to-day political discourse, such broad questions are never asked—and one may wonder if this is not the highest wisdom, since taking the arguments to their logical conclusions would be debating our society’s very existence. So we talk about income inequality and the one percent, or couch complaints of injustice in ascriptive terms, as though all that keeps us from utopia is “white privilege.”
Let me call the problem something else: firstness.
Traditionally, liberal-democratic politics is a marketplace where “right” and “left” (terms that demonstrate that our politics, in contrast with our technology, have not really progressed since the French Revolution) work out compromises that reconcile equality and firstness on an ad hoc basis. But as Chomsky’s politics suggests, today’s Left, as opposed to that of Harry Truman or John Kennedy, no longer thinks this way. The post-Cold-War Left has a program but no goal. It has discovered what escaped it during the 200 years of revolution that ended in 1989: pace Marx, “socialism” is just a name for the rejection of any real system of exchange in the name of abstract equality.
The unique basis for Chomsky’s condemnation of contemporary society is that it rewards firstness. Just as Chomskian linguistics denies the innovative firstness that led to the creation of the declarative sentence, so Chomskian politics denies reward to firstness in the socio-economic sphere. The point is not that people are rewarded under false pretenses, say, for “whom they know rather than what they know.” If anything, this is a conservative slogan, since conservatives believe that some varieties of firstness merit differential rewards whereas others do not. For the Chomskian Left, no differential reward is justified. Attacks on scandalous excesses—CEO salaries, billionaires, the affluent West as opposed to “third-world” societies—merely lend credibility to this general condemnation. Revolution must be permanent. The surprisingly successful revival of “socialism” in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is a noteworthy sign that the mainstream Left is catching up with Chomsky’s extremism; the ideal of a permanent “progressive” revolution looks ever more attractive.
In the hypothetical history proposed by GA, the sign was originally an ostensive gesture toward the sacred center of the originary scene, too desirable to be subject to the prehuman pecking-order mode of serial firstness. Human moral reciprocity, in other words, was originarily dependent on the unique otherness of the sacred. But as Adam Katz pointed out, the first use of the sign was itself an innovation, and as such must have been inaugurated by one or more individual participants whose understanding of their “aborted gesture” as a sign was subsequently imitated by the others. Subsequently, the progressive developments of human society emerge from individuals occupying the center of the scene to communicate with their fellows, and eventually obtaining power from this central position (along with the danger of becoming the victim or “scapegoat” of the peripheral participants).
GA understands ethics as an equilibrium between the moral model of egalitarian reciprocity and the firstness by which individual innovation and leadership provide benefits to that community. It is the entrepreneur’s, the musician’s, the engineer’s, the manager’s ability to do something new that is the soul of the market economy; as Peter Thiel points out in Zero to One (Crown, 2014), every actor in the market is essentially a monopolist. The “socialist” solution is to accept the gift of this uniqueness, but not attribute to it any economic reward. But an exchange system in which helping the community suffices as its own reward can exist only in highly particular historical circumstances, for example, the kibbutzim in the first generations of Israeli settlement—none of which have continued to exist in their original, “socialist” form.
Language was invented not to inform but to defer. The “information” that we see as the basic function of language is in the first place a substitute for the “magical” presentation of the desired object by the hearer of the imperative. Imagine a toddler for whom his mother is omnipotent. He calls out the name of an object—a toy, his bottle—and she presents it. But if the object is not available, she can give him only words in its place—his first experience of disillusion. Yet for the child as for humanity in general, the objective facts conveyed by predication are more useful in the long run than the mere supplying of the object. To see the declarative as a conquest over subjective desire lets us understand the point of God’s answering the request for his name in Exodus 3 with a declarative sentence (“I am that I am”). By this means we understand the One God of the Old Testament, like the mother who offers her child knowledge rather than desire-objects, as one who expresses his love for humankind by his gift of a world of “facts” that we must discover for ourselves rather than calling on him by name to magically supply our needs.
The originary hypothesis grounds this biblical intuition in a theory of human origin that is also a theory of linguistic evolution. I cannot expect the Chomskians, militants of the two-hundred-year-old Enlightenment revolt, to give this hypothesis due consideration. In contrast, the partisans of liberal democracy, liberals and conservatives alike, would do well to realize that in the absence of broadly shared biblical faith, only GA’s originary hypothesis, or a close equivalent, can justify the intuitions of the Bible and the respect they embody for both firstness and equality. It may or may not be useful to revise Chomskian linguistics, but it seems increasingly obvious that the West cannot survive without a radical revision of its Chomskian politics.