It always comes back to the originary scene and to the invention of language. Every use of language reinvents the doubling of referential reality by the sign that is the distinctive mark of human intelligence—which science still dare not understand in its human context. It is not simply that GA is ignored; its ideas have not been usurped by others, nor even rejected, but remain unexplored, beyond the capacity of “rational thought.” As though a professor of French could conceive an “originary event” of language that explains its existence better than the work of generations of paleontologists, and millennia of philosophers. Well, yes. GA is the sole attempt at a minimal model of the difference established once and for all by the “symbolic” sign between animal “instinct” and human thought. What Chomsky knew could not be reduced to the play of “conditioned reflexes” cannot be explained any better by the turtles-all-the-way-down explanation of a “language module” capable of recursion. Recursivity is an essential characteristic of language, but it is above all a formalistic place-holder for intentionality or simply, the für-sich-pour-soi of symbolic/linguistic representation. The form that can include itself as its own element is not a mere mechanism, but if not, something more than a new “module” was required to rewire the neural net; language embodies a new functionality that is the product of a new mode of intraspecific interaction.
It is true that GA for all its qualitatively superior understanding of language does not translate, as I dreamt when I first conceived it during my tragi-comic Hopkins visit of 1978, into a qualitatively superior method for “understanding” human history in the sense of being able to predict what will occur, or better, being able to determine it. For the understanding contained in our anthropology is not some new power previously unknown, but the power of language, of culture itself; being able to formulate this power in a minimal scenario allows us to model the distance between the language-using mind and its object in more concrete and tangible ways, but not to do anything with language that language had not already done. It allows us, in particular, to understand religion and language on essentially the same plane, not merely, as Roy Rappaport did in the 1990s (see Chronicle 282), postulate—already a great advance over the agnosticism of Durkheim—the coevality of language and religion. As Derrida “discovered” in his old age (see Frère Jacques, Chronicle 340), each use of language is an act of faith just as much as are the devotions of religion; no doubt the latter make a claim on ontology, but the claim need not be articulated as “belief,” it is embodied in the ritual gesture, and as such makes a similar presupposition of shared significance. Once one understands this, one can deal with the “problems of philosophy” at a certain distance. The problems of philosophy are not of course mere problems of language, but “ideas” are formulated in language and the philosophical fiction that can be traced to Parmenides that “the way of truth” is independent of language makes it impossible to situate the specificity of human intellection with relation to the rest of the universe. No doubt to describe the “scenario” of a hypothetical originary event is no proof of anything, but it is a model of worldly interaction that provides a plausible transition from the animal to the human state, and anything specifically human can be “staged” concretely in this context, whereas the various modes of philosophical introspection from Descartes to Husserl and beyond begin in medias res and cannot be made to provide any kind of concrete, interactive model of what must clearly have begun as a collective phenomenon—nor are they meant to do so.
I was reminded of this recently when I was asked by a former UCLA colleague to give a talk in a series sponsored by the Institute for Levinassian Studies. My familiarity with the work of Levinas is very limited, so I assigned myself the task of reading through his philosophical masterwork Totalité et infini—discovering in the process that the book, published in a philosophy series by Kluwer in Dordrecht in 1961 and reprinted dozens of times, is full of typos and spelling errors, not to speak of many sentences and sequences whose meaning is close to inextricable. But there is a powerful mind at work, one that although formed in the phenomenological tradition and taking Heidegger as its rival-model, is informed by a very different, and to my mind superior anthropological intuition. Indeed, to speak of an “anthropological intuition” is effectively to oppose the author of this work to the whole of the phenomenological tradition, including that of Existenzphilosophie. The examination of the contents of one’s mind, which for Husserl was a matter of training oneself through “phenomenological reduction” to observe one’s mental processes in the process of constructing a representation of the real world whose existence the adept did not deny but “bracket,” was extended by Heidegger to conceiving the human self (“Dasein”) in its life-world. But Dasein’s existence, although realized in a social environment, was never understood as essentially social, let alone ethical. It was taken for granted that authentic existence zum Tod was opposed to the illusive vanity of the crowd.
Levinas, in contrast, insists that la morale est la philosophie première, “first” in the sense of foundational. It was surely a courageous project to attempt to reconcile what I would call rather an anthropology than a philosophy with a method wholly grounded in the individual’s intuition of his own mental processes, and to the extent that Totalité et infini is successful, it reflects Levinas’s ingeniousness in meeting this challenge. But it seems to me that Levinas’s bet is more successful in the small than in the large. What people remember from this book as the key to Levinas’s thought is his privileging of le visage d’Autrui, “the face of the Other.” This is the theme that pervades the book and justifies the primacy of the moral. The face of the Other is that of a “stranger” whom in principle we cannot control, whom we may even be tempted to kill in order to maintain our exclusive dominance of our personal world-totality, but to whom we owe the moral obligation to accept his otherness and thereby experience its infinity, its transcendence of the totality of our world. I was pleased to discover in Levinas’s text that the “face of the Other” is not a mere physical presence; it is the face of a speaking being, one whose “infinite” otherness is revealed through language—the promise of dialogue. The difference is striking with Sartre’s L’être et le néant, which sees the power of the other over us as an illusion, tempting us to bad faith, to the denial of our own infinite freedom—and in whose 900 pages, not coincidentally, language is nowhere discussed.
In the assertion that we experience the infinite in the face of the other, our everyday experience of others is given the burden of making us continually aware of our moral responsibility to our fellow men. To observe another to the point of looking into his eyes is to recognize him as something other than a thing or an animal, as a being that we cannot encompass within our own sphere. The analogy of animal or toy “faces” with our own can be dealt with only once this central relationship is understood. In my discussion of “Bear Theory” in Chronicle 470, I pointed out that the minimal constituent of a “bear” (a stuffed animal as an object of human sentiment) is the possession of a pair of eyes, a look, which allows us to imagine it as a potential interlocutor.
All this is wonderful, and there is indeed an “esthetic” value in this focus on the face. Our experience of others is not a phenomenological intending of them as objects of contemplation but a solicitation, in tension with potential hostility, of complicity and mutuality that is always a potential exchange. The pour-soi that “freely” contemplates the world, the Husserlian consciousness realized in intending an object, exist in Levinas’s universe in the shadow of the loving dispossession occasioned by the face of the Other. And of course the child who emerges into the world has seen faces before passing through the stages, described long ago by Jean Piaget, of coming to terms with the object-world. When Levinas talks about the infinity in the face of the Other, he teaches us something about our own immediate reality.
I nonetheless find it unfortunate that the essentially ethical nature of humanity must be “discovered” in this way; that one is forced to rely on the moral intuition of the philosopher who picks out from our everyday experience those categories that are essential and arranges them in a personal hierarchy that his task is to make convincing, not through an exercise of reasoning from a set of minimal presuppositions, but simply by appealing to our own intuition of human experience. This philosophical practice is distinct from the empirical observations of the social sciences, yet strangely compatible with it; both are modes of “confirmation” that are performed in medias res in the modern world.
On the contrary, I believe that it is preferable to trace our modern behavior to a minimal set of traits which determined the emergence of the human as a new species that is also a new category of being and of beings. It seems to me that the closer the philosopher’s intuition comes to uniting individual experience and the principles that link humans together in their interactive environment, the more the arbitrary postulations of philosophy come into contradiction with the ultimate aim of fostering human self-understanding. Heidegger’s Dasein or Sartre’s pour-soi, whatever their lacks, are at the very least solipsistic in conception, the point being to describe the conditions under which the “solitary” individual comes to grasp his place in the world after being “thrown” into it. But once one situates the human individual’s relationship with others prior even to the perception of objects, the whole premise of introspective philosophy since Descartes is thrown into question: given the interactive nature of Levinas’s conception of our fundamental experience, must we not first postulate a scene of human interaction before seeking the foundational experiences of our own mind?
To my claim that GA’s provision of a hypothetical originary context is more “scientific” than the Cartesian method of in medias res introspection, social science’s answer will be, “there is nothing ‘scientific’ about your hypothesis, it is not falsifiable through empirical observation.” The only useful rebuttal is that, unlike the hypotheses of the social sciences, GA’s originary hypothesis cannot be falsified empirically by examining physical evidence, but only confirmed or disconfirmed heuristically by extrapolating back from our cultural experiences of the scenic. Alone at my desk composing this Chronicle, I can scan my mind for experiences of the Other and recall the faces I have looked into. But in order to be able to claim that these experiences are the necessary bedrock on which to build a theory of the human, or if you like a “philosophy,” I must provide a hypothesis that explains the emergence of the scene of these experiences into a world where such a scene did not previously exist.
No doubt the originary hypothesis and its consequences can be confirmed only by our intuition that they account for the totality of human cultural phenomena with which we are acquainted. But the advantage of such a procedure is that our confirmation is cumulative; to understand how we react to “the face of the Other” becomes an element of a vision of the individual human being not as an aggregate of personal modes of experience that presumably define its humanity and by analogy that of all other humans, but as it emerged from the prehuman state and on the basis of the traits that the reader shares with his first human ancestor.
Thus, as I pointed out in my talk, a theme such as “the face of the Other” can be fruitfully explored as a fundamental human experience if we situate it, as all root human experiences must be situated, within the originary event. The justification for this procedure, which we call originary analysis, is that in the most fundamental sense in which we are determined by human culture, we have never really left the originary event.
In the originary context, my examination of the face, the “look” of the other is not merely my awe at his “infinite” otherness, but in the first place a search for indications of whether he is threatening to end the deferral of violence precariously installed by the sign by “disaborting” his gesture of appropriation. The “Girardian” element of violence seems to me crucial, and as I also tried to show, is crucial to Levinas as well, who begins his book by postulating that humanity is in the general case in a state of war—a conclusion that someone, particularly a Jew, who lived through both World Wars would find all too natural. The look of the other will provide me evidence of whether his intentions are peaceful or aggressive, and I am well aware that I have no control over these intentions, save insofar as we both participate in the collective proto-ritual of designating/representing the central object. The “infinity” of which Levinas speaks inheres primarily in the fact that this and every single person in the group has the power to perturb and perhaps destroy the nascent human order, and as such, his and every other decision not to do this is a gesture of “infinite” generosity to the future of our species.
Originary analysis can be extended to all of Levinas’s and indeed to Sartre’s or Heidegger’s affirmations concerning the human subject, the only difference being Levinas’s greater awareness, in common with GA, that the experience of the individual depends on the existence of a human community. But then why not adopt a method that affirms this communal existence explicitly? Once we think in terms of the scenic nature of human representation, we become less confident of the Cartesian “self-evidence” of our private experience. Reliance on introspection is never more than an artifice by the very fact that it takes place in language, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be conceived as nothing but an element of an individual mind. When Descartes says cogito, ergo sum, he is implicitly recognizing the existence of humanity as a sign-exchanging world, without which this expression of his conscious awareness of his own existence would be impossible. Do dogs “know” they exist? It seems to me that in reference to creatures without language, “know” is never more than a metaphor.
There is a system of authority that dissuades us from taking seriously a mode of thought that appeals to hypotheses not sanctioned by a professional, or what Adam Katz would call a disciplinary body. No doubt the GASC can claim to be such a body, but there is a question of critical mass and above all of funding. The market system is one in which money talks, and when neither governmental, institutional, or independent funds are available, a theory is unlikely to attract them by relying on the simple excellence of its productions. This strikes me as a real problem of cultural sociology today, one that affects the arts as well—for example that of lyric poetry, which is controlled by a well-funded poetry establishment rooted in university MFA programs, the Poetry Foundation, and related journals and publishers, the only exceptions to which are either guerilla efforts such as the late Ken Warren’s House Organ or the recently established online Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, or popular modes such as slams and rap. In a revolution that resembles on a far vaster scale that introduced by the popular press and widespread literacy in the 19th century, the proliferation of “media” makes the traditional modes of selection obsolete. GA has done its best to take advantage of this revolution; Anthropoetics and the Chronicles were pioneering examples of electronic journals and blogs respectively—although the Chronicles have always been essays rather than “blogs.” Yet GA has scarcely benefited from the enormous expansion of the Internet since the 1995 founding of our website.
Maintaining “respect for history” while experiencing so little encouragement from it risks falling afoul of the familiar cliché about insanity. But unlike political campaigners, for whom winning votes is the bottom line, we are not obliged to concern ourselves with popularity. A new way of thinking is authentic to the very extent that it is not backed by some consecrated authority. In a time when the Christian paradigm of care for victims that once prompted heroic deeds of courage and asceticism has been distorted into a pretext for indulging in victimary resentment (“hate the haters”), the faith demanded by an extra-institutional disciplinary community existing as a gratuitous gift to the intellectual world, awaiting the adherence of those whose conviction can only be pure of institutional self-interest, is rather exhilarating, a bit like the faith of anchorites such as Simeon Stylites or Anthony the Great—albeit leavened with some Jewish common sense. As I turn 75 this year, this is the sole legacy I can offer those who persist in their interest—in their faith—in GA.