For years my intellectual universe has been increasingly characterized by dissociation. On the one hand, nearly forty years ago I formulated a heuristic hypothesis that I believe revolutionizes our conception of human language and culture. On the other hand, although this idea first appeared in 1981 in a major university press book that was well publicized, and has since been refined and reproduced in countless print and web publications, it remains virtually invisible and is never referenced in “scientific” works dealing with the origin of language.
On the third hand, a small group of academics have nonetheless remained attached to this idea, allowing Anthropoetics to appear uninterruptedly since 1995, and more recently created a Generative Anthropology Society (and Conference) that has held a series of eleven consecutive annual conferences, with a twelfth scheduled for 2018. Although, on the fourth hand, it would be presumptuous for me to claim that all or even most within this core group share my conviction of the transformational nature of the originary hypothesis.
Why do I believe that my little scenario of language origin is so important? While thousands of intellectuals spent decades enthralled, as some still are, with the Derridean idea of la différance as exposing the lie of the “presence” of the sign to our consciousness and debunking the oppressive dominance of the Center privileging male over female, white over black, right over left… only a tiny handful appreciate seeing deferral explained simply and graphically as a stepping back from mimetically enhanced “instinctive” violence, an inversion of Girard’s victimary idea that I think more faithful to its spirit than his own sacrificial formulation.
Deferral in this sense, which establishes within a group of proto-humans the first scene of representation, is as far as I know the only non-metaphysical and non-supernatural explanation anyone has ever come up with of the difference between human, sign-mediated consciousness and that of other creatures, the only anthropological model of the unique human pour-soi that has been the focus of philosophy since Descartes, culminating in Sartre’s L’être et le néant, the “last word” of metaphysical analysis, but which, because it remains a work of metaphysics, describes our consciousness as an individual rather than a communal scene and, neglecting language, deprives itself of the possibility of bridging the gap between natural science and philosophy.
Nothing that has happened since I first formulated the originary hypothesis has in any way altered my judgment of its importance. But having reached the relatively ripe age of seventy-five (the new fifty?), it seems to me that I owe it to those who have remained interested in this idea, and even more, to the idea itself, to put away the usual resentments and attempt to outline a strategy that would maximally preserve GA’s chances for eventual success. This will depend on our ability not simply to persuade the intellectual world of the plausibility of the originary hypothesis but to demonstrate its usefulness in reinterpreting humanity’s cultural legacy. Republishing The Origin of Language in an updated and streamlined version is a first step in this direction.
Although, as with philosophical constructions, and even some anthropological ones—e.g., Mauss’ notion of the gift as confirmed in the contemporary world by social rather than economic exchange—GA’s hypothesis can be confirmed in vivo by the examination of the scenic structures of our own lives, it is doubly handicapped. Not only is it not empirically falsifiable, but I think more importantly, it does not bear the imprimatur of an authority in linguistics or the related social sciences. Had such as Derek Bickerton or Terrence Deacon formulated the originary hypothesis, it would surely have been widely discussed, no doubt further elaborated, and might well by now have acquired general acceptance.
Yet such an eventuality would have been highly unlikely. Our hypothesis is too paradoxical, too humanistic to appeal to, or even to occur to, a social scientist. The day of “natural philosophy” is over, and GA as a new way of thinking is not merely lacking in appeal to those whose work is resolutely empirical, it is far too revelatory for the tastes of those who enter and are trained in these fields. These include analytic philosophy, which today is a highly technical subject, not one friendly to armchair speculation.
None of this makes GA less necessary than it would be otherwise; on the contrary. But it requires that we become aware of the need to persuade social scientists of the need for this kind of speculative “theory” as opposed to the incremental conceptions that emerge from empirical study, and which conceive of human culture as an emergent structure in the sense of adding a new layer of recursion without understanding its paradoxical, faith-based essence: the human attribution of sacrality/significance as pre-existing the human. Or to put it more simply, the inextricable unity of God creates man/man creates God.
We must also undertake the hopefully less arduous task of persuading humanists that grounding philosophy and its ethical foundation in anthropological reality is both necessary and made qualitatively simpler by means of a hypothesis that begins with the constitution of the human community in an event, the origin of language and culture.
No doubt these programmatic suggestions are easier to propose than to realize in practice. I have attempted to implement them over the years in a number of books, as well as in these Chronicles, but whatever insights I may have achieved, these writings could not demonstrate sufficient mastery of the fields of world culture to persuade the specialists in these domains, let alone the intellectual public, of their value. It is clear in hindsight that The Origin of Language, which introduced the originary hypothesis to the world, would have benefited from a clearer idea of what GA could accomplish. Most of the early books—Science and Faith is an exception—lack a strategy of composition; they are extended thought-experiments rather than satisfying wholes. I would no doubt have done better to focus more closely on the relationships between my new way of thinking and the various older ways with which it intersects, philosophy in particular, rather than attempting to rewrite in outline the history of Western literary culture.
At this point in my life, I believe my time is best spent in returning to the foundations of GA in hopes that by clarifying its relationship to these other domains I might stimulate workers in these fields to explore its consequences. In preparation for this, I offer a few watchwords whose visibility as corollaries of GA is not as obvious as I would like. Failure to accept these points almost inevitably means falling into a compromise position in which one combines GA with other ultimately incompatible ways of thinking in a lazy eclecticism. GA has its roots in “French theory,” but even more than Girard’s writing, it is allergic to being name-dropped into a mix of other fashionable notions. Although GA’s notion of deferral derives from Derrida’s idea of différance, the two cannot simply be “used” alongside each other.
- Language is not “about reality”
William Flesch, whose presence at our recent Stockholm GASC I greatly appreciated, is one evolutionary-psychology-oriented literary theorist who does not accept the rationalistic clichés of the genre, but understands the paradoxical nature of human culture. Flesch rejects the facile notion of identification as an explanation of the reader’s relationship with fictional characters, insisting rather on the anomalous, not to say paradoxical nature of our interest in fictional beings; how can they affect our lives if they do not “really” exist? As he points out quite correctly, our relationship to literary characters is like that we have with people in the real world; we judge their acts, and espouse or oppose their desires, depending on what I would simply call our sense of justice, as providing validation for our community-oriented values, notably our penchant for what he calls “altruistic punishment.” That is, our moral sense makes us willing to forgo personal satisfaction (thus to act “altruistically”) in order to punish those who violate the norms that maintain the human community on the right side of the “prisoner’s dilemma.” Whence his provocative title, Comeuppance (Harvard UP, 2007).
I would respectfully append to Flesch’s analysis a basic notion that should simplify the question of our relationship to fictional beings. It derives directly from GA’s central idea about language: language is not in the first place “about reality.” It is not “about” anything; it is a means for deferring violence (not simply “aiding cooperation”) by communicating/renouncing desire in the present in lieu of acting on it in order that it may be subsequently acted on without conflict. The fictional characters that we meet on our mental scene of representation are in cultural terms more significant than our problems in the “real world,” because they engage us directly with the communal scene of culture. (Which is why we cry so easily at the movies.) Durkheim saw religion as embodying the values of the community that individuals would not otherwise adopt for themselves. This is true enough, but backward, since we would have no “values” at all in the absence of the scene of representation that exists in us as individuals only because it was first created in and along with the community.
Although the absence of originary about-ness is obvious once one realizes that language cannot have begun with declarative sentences, this is no doubt the most difficult aspect of GA for others to grasp. This is particularly true of scientists. Their language is disciplined by truth-value, and they obey very strict rules concerning what can be affirmed. To them, it seems obvious that language emerged so I could make to a fellow proto-human the falsifiable statement that “the food is over the hill.” What they fail to realize is that had this been the originary purpose of language, we would have evolved like vervet monkeys, emitting different signals for the different objects of interest in our environment.
Particularly since the Enlightenment, we have lived in a rationalistic world in which our language is supposed to be “falsifiable.” Hence we tend to understand Nietzsche’s critique of objective truth as a debunking, when it might more usefully be seen as an insight into its evolution (see Kieran Stewart, “Nietzsche’s Early Theory of Language in Light of Generative Anthropology”). Truth-seeking is a beautiful thing, as are the achievements and applications of natural science. But the originary function of language cannot have been to “convey information” about “reality.” Frankfort’s ironic concept of BS (see Chronicle 475), comes closer to its original purpose, which is, to use Durkheim’s term, to create “solidarity.”
- The sacred and the significant are originarily identical
They only come to differentiate themselves on the scene of representation that their common manifestation inaugurates. The notion that it is we who attribute significance to objects of experience is, like the declarative sentence, not an originary one. The first significant object, by being designated by a sign, is thereby distinguished from every other object in the universe as something to which we cannot relate through our “instinctive” appetites. We do not need “supernatural” categories to define the sacred; it is thus already defined.
The sacred/significant is the originary cultural supplement to what has been revealed as the dangerous inadequacy of our “natural” pre-human restraints. This danger is deferred by the imposition of the sign between us and our “instinctive” nature. The sacred understands itself as a desire that cannot be fulfilled and for that very reason is desire and no longer mere appetite. Unlike the rational uses of language that we falsely think of as fundamental, it is the use of the ostensive sign to designate the originary sacred object that is the founding gesture of language, the stepping-back or deferral of appetitive interest that inaugurates the notion of significance/sacrality, our first idea.
This is not to suggest that there is no difference between religious and rational thought. But discussing such differences as though they were grounded in an unchanging cultural ontology is the action of a “historian of ideas,” not a thinker. The very point of GA is to show the common root of our ways of commemorating / reproducing / perpetuating the originary scene, both in order that their differences can be appreciated and in order to find better ways of recombining them.
The contemporary Judeo-Christian West’s loss of faith is a serious matter. Whether genuine organic substitutes for religion exist beyond Europe’s abstract human-rights “Ethical Culture,” or whether the traditional faiths can be revitalized, as seems to be occurring in various places, the purpose of GA is not merely to register these developments but to contribute to them by providing a new level of human self-understanding.
Finally, as both these lessons demonstrate,
- Our human essence as symbolic language-users is ineluctably paradoxical.
Because natural language attributes significance as if it were independent of this attribution, it can never be “understood” as a formal system. All works of cultural significance, whether of art or religion, function to let us experience the paradoxical emergence of significance, or to put it in spatial terms, the emergence of verticality from the horizontal world of pre-human interactions. This is a “mystery” whose existence cannot be explained since it concerns the sign-system in which the explanation must be given.
But this third lesson is best kept in the back of our minds, since insisting on it risks conveying to the world of science the impression that GA is a kind of mysticism. On the contrary, GA’s first words, from the first page of The Origin of Language in 1981, are: Mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity. To allow us to better understand ourselves by grasping the pre-rational foundation of language and culture is GA’s purpose. It is also, I believe, that of human science.