For a certain time I have sensed that GA’s failure to be taken seriously by the professionals of the social sciences is not merely a product of its practitioners’ lack of professional standing. No doubt being a member of the club would make these ideas more acceptable, but the fact is that they are simply not in the ballpark of today’s social-science thinking. I have noted Big Data as one important factor in the disaffection from “speculative” thinking (see Chronicle 555), but there is more to it than that. For one thing, how do we explain the long-lasting engouement of American social scientists for the writings of Jacques Derrida and even the more obscure “French theorists”? If anything is speculative, it is this kind of writing, not to speak of its often deliberate obscurity. Why then did, and to some extent still do, social scientists find an interest in such writings, whereas those of GA, or of René Girard, for that matter, speculative perhaps, but clearly and logically presented, remain beyond the pale?
If there is one thinker whose thinking seems utterly inimical to the methodology of the social sciences, it is certainly Derrida. Not only is it intuitive rather than data-driven, but its conclusions are diametrically opposed to those philosophers of science draw to justify and explain the methods and results of the sciences, physical or social. No doubt one can understand the interest of literary scholars and even a certain type of political thinker for deconstructive thought, and as Andrew McKenna first pointed out in Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida, and Deconstruction (U Illinois P, 1992), it has very interesting implications for anthropology. Only these implications are precisely the opposite of those drawn by the practitioners of the social sciences who apply his thought to their practice.
A very interesting work of scholarship could be written to trace the effects of deconstruction on the “soft” social sciences such as psychology or information studies. The purpose of this Chronicle is to offer an admittedly impressionistic overview of the matter insofar as it concerns Generative Anthropology.
Deconstruction is an internal critique of metaphysics that, from the perspective of GA, demonstrates that metaphysics’ fundamental, if tacit, presupposition, the ahistorical subsistence of propositional language, is a fiction designed to mask the “original sin” of unequal power relations—the underlying premise of victimary thought.
Derrida makes this point quite explicitly in his deconstruction of presence. Beginning with his writings on Husserl in the 1960s, presence is for Derrida the spurious assertion of metaphysical thought since Plato that the speaker is authentically present in his speech (in contrast to the author’s “absence” from his writing), and that this “immediate” communication of his will permits him to exercise control over his audience. In fact, we know that the search for ontological certainty in propositional language is bound to fail, given that the metaphysical attitude refuses to ground such language in anything but itself. GA permits us to understand both the power and the limitations of Derrida’s analysis, as well as the limitations of the entire metaphysical project, of which he would appear to be malgré lui the last significant exponent.
GA’s own adaptation of Derrida inverts the decentering thrust of his critique of metaphysics, which is to say, of the philosophical proposition. Derrida’s central deconstructive notion is la différance, a “misspelling” of différence that makes it into a verbal noun, the gerund of différer in the sense of postpone or, as it is commonly translated, defer. For Derrida, this term applies to the “hesitation” we supposedly experience in deciding which member of a paradigm to use: is it red, or fuschia, or pink? Derrida’s point is that because the possible terms differ, the decision to use any one of them must be deferred to permit the speaker to choose among them. This should be understood less as an empirical postulation about the speaker’s psychology than as a statement about the ontology of the proposition. In contrast with the “false consciousness” of transparency that attends the assertion of a proposition for classical philosophy, so that my stating it out loud or to myself makes its meaning self-evident, the connection between subject and predicate being “present” to my consciousness, Derrida insists on the temporal delay between the one and the other, a space into which “non-presence,” a post-structural version of Sartre’s liberating néant, intervenes.
Sartre was a true metaphysician, and in the most important sense, the last of the breed: someone who remained entirely within the province of metaphysics’ presupposition of language as a neutral background of thought that requires no examination of its specificity, and above all of its historical emergence. As opposed to animal consciousness that lacks this cultural space of reflection, what Sartre calls the human pour-soi contains a néant that lets us stand back from and intend our objects of perception. I have pointed out elsewhere (see, e.g., Chronicle 478) that this néant is precisely the equivalent of Derrida’s notion of deferral.
That Sartre, who knows that negation is a product of language, never takes off from there to examine the function of language in bringing about this freedom, reflects his fealty to the metaphysical tradition. Classical philosophy simply cannot deal with this question, and even when, as in the 18th century, it ventures into speculations on the origin of language, they are never such as would subject the language of philosophical discourse itself to the domain of historical contingency. Hegel recounts the history of the world-spirit, but the origin of language cannot be a part of this history, because the history itself begins with words. Being and non-being are not like rocks or atoms; one cannot conceive of them as subsisting in a world lacking the equivalent of a human mind.
Structuralism in linguistics and the other social sciences was intended to replace the philosophical idea of causality among individual cultural entities with measurable correlations among these entities as elements of a structure. Its application to anthropology allowed Lévi-Strauss and his colleagues to describe tribal societies in terms of configurations purportedly found in all aspects of a given cultural universe, from topographical patterns of habitation, to systems of animal “totems,” to linguistic structures, myths, the organization of rituals, etc. All these cultural complexes were defined by analogy with Saussure’s conception of language as a “system of differences.” In this perspective, words exist both as sounds and as meanings (signifiants and signfiés) only within systems of phonological and semantic differences. Saussurian synchronic linguistics does not deny linguistic diachrony, but it insists on the fact that we can trace the history of language only so far, whereas the structures of a given language at the present moment are directly available to us. In this perspective, seeking as I have done to derive the declarative sentence from more elementary utterance forms would be dismissed as idle speculation.
Structuralism is, from our vantage point, language’s revenge on philosophy’s “Hegelian” confidence that metaphysics’ deliberate blindness to language’s existence within history would not prevent philosophy from being able to reconstruct its own history and consequently its ontology. Thus in Hegel’s dialectic, which “brackets” the history of the physical universe, being generates its history out of its dialectic with non-being. But no, structuralism tells us, there is no origin of difference; structures of differences were there from the beginning.
This originary agnosticism is the first truly post-metaphysical stage of the deconstruction of metaphysics, various avatars of which, from Marx to Nietzsche, had appeared a century earlier. But structuralism continues to rely unreflectively on human language and understanding, while refusing to seek an explanation for how this language and understanding itself might have arisen. This recoil from the consideration of origins can already be found in Durkheim, the originator of structuralism in anthropology, who dismisses speculations about the origin of religion as not grounded on empirical evidence.
Derrida’s post-structuralism, as opposed to the sociological constructions of Foucault or the psychological intuitions of Lacan, is founded on revealing the dependence of structuralism on the metaphysics that it purports to transcend. For Derrida, la différance “shakes up” (ébranle) the differential paradigms of which “structures” are composed. It is at this point that Derrida comes closer than any of the “French theorists” to the anthropological insight first realized by Girard: that, very simply, human culture can only be understood from the standpoint of its scenic origin.
But close, as they say, is still no cigar. Derrida still thinks of language as a system of differences, a paradigm, and “shaking up” a paradigm does not reduce it to unity. We observed in Chronicle 535 Derrida’s nostalgia for Heidegger’s nostalgia for “the word” of originary Being. But “Being” is as good a word as any. Cosmology is one thing, but the fundamental anthro-philosophical question is not Heidegger’s Why is/are there Being(s) rather than nothing? but Why is there language? Nostalgia can only wonder, but not attempt to answer the question.
Derrida’s shaking-up, like Foucault’s attempts at demystification, all have a victimary motivation. In Foucault, the historical epistémés are determined in more or less Marxist fashion by power-relations, although no longer wholly dominated by economics. For Derrida, who is principally concerned with the philosophical underpinnings of human reality, deconstruction is a way of undoing the fictional construction of this reality for the benefit of the “ruling class.”
Derrida never concerns himself with the awkward fact that the first human societies, the first users of language, like hunter-gatherer societies to this day, were essentially egalitarian. While criticizing Rousseau for opposing speech to writing in parallel with the opposition between la société commencée and the “unequal” society inaugurated by le premier qui dit: Ceci est à moi, Derrida merely projects Rousseau’s critique of civilization and its written culture back onto spoken language itself. Language for Derrida is always already an instrument of oppression, one that propagates by its very nature the myth of the “presence” of meaning and truth within the spoken word in order to compel its listeners to obedience.
This originary insistence on not just différance but oppression clashes with the freedom of the pour-soi that différance might have been expected to confirm. But the political excitement of deconstruction, which rapidly morphs into a much more concrete critique of “oppressive” binary distinctions much in the spirit of our victimary age (male vs female, white vs black, right vs left…), unfortunately overtakes the real anthropological insight that Derrida never allows to assert itself. Derrida’s deferral was in effect a sophisticated homology of Girard’s intuition that human culture is inaugurated by the deferral of violence. But the deferral of violence is not a shake-up but a pacification, not a proliferation but a centralization. And the simplest understanding of this pacification is the origin of language and culture as described by the originary hypothesis, the deferral of violence through representation.
Superficially, one might think that social science would be content with the denial of originarity already instituted by structuralism. And in effect, if deconstruction may be said to have conquered the humanities, until it was in turn superseded by approaches both more openly victimary and less dependent on the kind of intellectual subtlety today associated with “Whiteness,” it never provoked more than a peripheral fermentation in the softer social sciences. But this phenomenon is of interest to us to the extent that GA claims to be closer to science than philosophy. If we can rethink the main concept of deconstruction as the central feature of our theory of representational culture, then we should be able to adapt this same rethinking to the various social sciences that have been tempted by deconstruction.
I have already done this with the relevant aspects of linguistics. Language may be “nothing but differences,” but the first difference is the difference/différance between appropriating an object and representing it, by deferring its appropriation and converting by that act the gesture of appropriation into an ostensive sign of designation.
Not having researched the question in depth, I can only offer an impression. It seems to me that deconstruction has influenced the social sciences primarily in two ways. The first is that of Big Data, which whatever its limitations has been productive of interesting results in many areas of cultural study. It avoids, I think deliberately, the political crudeness of the second, overtly victimary approach, which is to “deconstruct” Western ideas to the benefit of their “victims.”
- Big Data
Our Big Data era sees structuralism as outmoded, pre-cybernetic. Structuralism is an “emic” mode of thought that takes a target culture’s own categories as primary, and seeks only to systematize the relationships among them, noting for example the homology between kinship-relations and village geography. There is nothing in structuralist analyses that cannot be said to be implicitly present in the minds of the members of a culture; adding the concepts that make these parallels specific remains on a meta-level.
What deconstruction does for Big Data by delegitimizing the emic categories of a given culture is to justify their abandonment in favor of parameters of which the human subjects are presumably unaware, parameters to be derived by statistical analysis from the “raw” data themselves. This approach permits the researcher to develop algorithms to predict, or retrodict, results whose multiple causality would be unthinkable by the members of the culture, or indeed by anyone not in possession of the data and the tools of computer analysis. This helps explain why those who practice such methods, unlike the anthropologists of earlier generations, tend to be dismissive of religion. Religious rites can only with great distortion be studied in terms of empirical data, that is, as behaviors, without concern for the categories of thought used by their participants.
In practice, correlation matrices are easy to generate; indeed, they emerge directly from the computer once the appropriate regression equations have been solved. Translating such results into the emic language of any culture, including the researcher’s own, can be left to popular vulgarizations, the common mode of which is to tell us how little we know of our “true” motivations when we believe we are behaving rationally.
- Victimary deconstruction
This cruder approach is no doubt the more common. In fields like information studies, where conceptual structures cannot be replaced with Big Data correlations, and in any domain with political implications, deconstruction is used to reinforce the anthropologist’s traditional insistence on the validity of the emic categories of the target culture by attacking the “supremacist” values implicit in those of Western thought. Edouard Said’s Orientalism owes nothing specific to Derrida, but they are allies in the broader movement of victimary thinking in the postmodern era. More recently, what we had “naively” thought to be objective distinctions, such as that between correct and incorrect grammar, or the presence and absence of mathematical competence, are revealed in a distant caricature of deconstruction to be reflections of “white privilege.” See, for example, Chronicle 563.
I hope the reader will agree that the truly liberating interpretation of deconstruction is that of the originary hypothesis: to understand the historical origin of the human as the product of the différance of appetitive drives by means of the consciously intended and communally shared sign. Language and culture cannot have begun with the violence of domination and resentment, but only with the deferral of violence that we call love, whether understood as of divine or human origin.