The originary hypothesis, the core of generative anthropology, is so simple that many mistake it for a return to the pre-evolutionary speculations on language origin of Condillac or Herder, whose scenarios I discussed in The Scenic Imagination. Ironically, this minimalism, with its appeal to Ockham’s razor, disqualifies the hypothesis a priori in the eyes of social scientists as based on an speculative scenario that is empirically unfalsifiable. As a result, the clearly unsatisfactory nature of social science’s own explanations of the origin of language, and of the human culture that depends on it, is taken simply as an encouragement to continue in the hopes of coming closer to the goal, even if the objective results, by any measure of their intellectual content, suggest rather that the very nature of the problem they are attempting to solve increasingly escapes them.
If human language and its related representations indeed constitute as Karl Popper claimed a World 2 separate from that of reality, or in Sartre’s Hegelian terms, the world of the pour-soi in opposition to the en-soi, then the conception of language as an “emergence” of the protohuman brain’s increased cognitive capacity is simply a category error. The creation/discovery of a new world cannot be reduced to an improvement in preexisting technology. In our Enlightenment passion to reject the myths of our religious heritage, we have forgotten that the mysteries of the “supernatural” are of secondary importance to the unprecedented creation of a communication system by which we can share ideas which, as opposed to mental images and sensations, exist in a meaningful sense only as part of this system. The idea that individuals had “thoughts” that they invented language in order to communicate to each other is as absurd as claiming that genes were invented because creatures wanted to transmit their traits to their offspring. A thought is a representation; there is no such thing as a “thought” not already represented by signs.
Our increasing suspicion of the intellectual content of (Western) culture leads us to deprecate its conceptualizations of human consciousness in favor of studying the neural complexity that alone is considered relevant for the emergence of human language. It goes without saying that religious thinking is ignored; but characteristic of recent times is the neglect, by students of the “cognitive revolution,” of the Western philosophical tradition as well, despite its focus since Descartes on the nature of individual consciousness. In our victimary era, “speciesism” is akin to racism, and it is thought shameful to suggest that we possess not merely a quantitative but qualitative superiority to other creatures; human language and culture are merely the “natural” products of our more complex brains.
We inhabit an intellectual world where on one part of campus, philosophers continue in the Platonic tradition to study the “ideas” we find in our consciousness, as though the language we use to describe them were an instrument external to the ideas themselves, while on another part of campus, psychologists and linguists study the operations of language without any consideration for the reflections of the philosophers, discussing the cognitive functions of the brain as though digital computers alone provided scientifically useful models of our nervous system. Yet, whatever the specialists tell us, natural-scientific knowledge is insufficient to model the origin of language and culture. This can only be done from a humanist perspective.
Becoming human was not an effect of genetic mutations, which enabled it but did not accomplish it. It was brought about by a discovery/invention that can only retrospectively be spoken of as the result of attaining a certain level of neuronal complexity. Before humanity could be born in the symmetrical exchange of language, humans had not only to have the individual mental capacity but the collective occasion to grasp the possibility that a nonproductive action could be used as a voluntary sign, in contrast to the indexical signs produced as byproducts of practical or involuntary actions and reactions. The protohuman community becomes human only when its survival depends on its renouncement of the (sacred) central object and on its collective sharing of this knowledge via the exchange of the sign.
What I have called the “moral model” of the reciprocal exchange of signs around a sacred center provides the anthropological foundation for our universal sense of moral equality. It is this sense that explains the “categorical imperative” and the religious and political assertions of this equality rather than the reverse.
It bears remarking that GA’s use of the term “firstness” is less a borrowing than a neologism. The introduction of firstness into the originary hypothesis is due to Adam Katz’ seminal article “Remembering Amalek: 9/11 and Generative Thinking” (Anthropoetics 10, 2). I have taken the liberty of simplifying C. S. Peirce’s original use of this term, as followed in Adam’s article, redefining it as the status of the one who goes first.
For Adam’s main point in this article is to redescribe the originary event, the symmetrical exchange of the aborted gesture of appropriation converted into a sign, as a necessarily conscious innovation by one or several individuals, not an action spontaneously performed, as the abortion itself of the gesture may well have been, by the entire group. Such an act could not be an unthinking effect of mimesis, since it involves the emergence of a new consciousness. Given that, as I had stated, the origin of the first self-conscious act could not take place unconsciously, it follows that it could not spontaneously have occurred to all the members of the group. Were it a mere instinctive withdrawal, as suggested by the image of the hands hesitating to take the last piece of cake, it would not inaugurate a new form of comunicative behavior, let alone an entirely new dimension of consciousness. Once the members of the group come to defer their act of appropriation, they have liberated themselves from the automatism of “instinct,” and at that point it is as “free” individuals that they are at liberty to reflect on the potential new status of the “aborted gesture” as the shared designation of a sacred/significant central object.
It is to the freedom that made the sign possible in the first place, and that permits its use to transcend the symmetry of the communal sharing of meaning that makes human existence possible, that I have given the name of firstness, in order to emphasize the impossibility of avoiding priority even in the most utopian vision of the human community. It is essential to point out that the exchange of signs, and similar cultural acts, are the only ones that permit the seamless adoption of an individual’s innovation by the entire community, and that it is precisely this possibility of firstness that makes it the foundation of the human community.
The sign as the originary instrument of human firstness provides the ideal example of an original creation that can be indefinitely transmitted to others to everyone’s gain. That is, signs are the only things that can be freely exchanged without limit, and their creation is precisely what maintains the possibility of peace. In any instance of firstness that breaks this symmetry, the community, whose very humanity is constituted by the symmetrical exchange of signs, cannot but be disturbed, and forced to readjust.
To be complete, this theorizing on firstness must be completed by what in The End of Culture (UC 1985) I called the “secondary revelation,” which took place at the beginning of the Neolithic or agricultural age: the usurpation of the sacred center by a human—at first the “big man” who deprives himself of food to be able to nourish the other members of the tribe, then chiefs, kings, emperors, and elected presidents.
But what is curious in the victimary age is how insistently oppression is related solely to ascriptive categories; inequalities of wealth and power, including the traditional rich-poor dichotomy, are largely ignored except insofar as they can be conceived within those categories. “Poor whites” are not only not considered “oppressed,” they are seen as “deplorables” full of “oppressive” Nazi-like ideas, in contrast with the woke billionaires that it is very uncool to resent.
The notion of “intersectionality,” which seeks to link the various ascriptive oppressions in a common opposition to the “privileged,” is generally understood as a political slogan allowing for the cooperation of various activist groups. Yet its ideological consequence is to locate the principal division in the society between this collection of groups and the nebulously and negatively defined “unmarked” possessors of “white privilege.” Which is to say that “privilege,” which since the French Revolution had been associated primarily with wealth and secondarily with political power, is now defined primarily by race and gender.
This tactic could not work were it not grounded in the implicit caste structure of contemporary American society. The creation of a “lower class” of recent immigrants, many illegal, who work as gardeners, domestics, handymen, or in low-level service jobs in exchange for eventual citizenship (if not for them, then for their children) benefits the wealthy and upper middle-class, while their uncertain status reduces the pressure on the labor market. This class, like their “progressive” employers, share a political interest in supporting the Democratic Party. At least so far, this party’s globalist politics has not had to face, as it would in Europe, the problem of the mass immigration of Muslims increasingly alienated from Western values. Nor can one compare the “revolt” that led to Trump’s election in 2016 with the increasing chaos of European politics, faced with demographic decline and increasingly open conflict between national and global values.
Beginning with claiming the always-already discriminatory/oppressive nature of language (white over black, male over female), victimary ideology redefines moral equality as the goal of an “intersectional” struggle against ascriptive discrimination. But what deconstruction found in texts, intersectional activists find embodied in all traditional human behaviors.
The beauty of this system is that, like a moral neutron bomb, it attacks only human attitudes while leaving the economic infrastructure intact. This benefits not just the woke billionaires; it permits the economic system to operate at near-maximal efficiency at the relatively manageable cost of maintaining a welfare economy cum affirmative action for victimary minorities. Lip service is paid to criticizing “inequality,” but there is little or no pressure to check the growth of the winner-take-all aspect of the global economy, as illustrated most clearly by the dominance of Silicon Valley firms (“GAFA”) and the extraordinary wealth of their leading investors. Instead, we are asked to “check our privilege,” the “whiteness” we have possessed from time immemorial.
If we bracket the absurd side effects (“math is white”) of this process, it reflects the intuition that the current problems of hierarchy, in short, of the liberal-democratic meritocracy, cannot be solved in the absence of a level playing field. In today’s newsworld, one has the impression that if we could eliminate all ascriptive claims of victimage, there would be nothing outrageous left to report.
For example, one cannot avoid noticing that in the woke community, Islamic terrorism inspires less hostility to Muslims than a backlash of sympathy and warning against “Islamophobia,” often accompanied by anger at those accused of “blaming Islam” for these actions. Such is never the case for someone who can be accused, on whatever evidence, of ascriptive discrimination.
My point here is less to deplore this than to point out its implications. If one sought an explanation of why an involuntary racial slur is more outrageous than a terrorist act, the answer would be simply this: if we could do away with racism, we would have no problems with terrorism. The murderous activities of Palestinians are described as the acts of freedom fighters seeking to reclaim the land stolen from them by the European Jews, and all terrorism can be understood in the same manner. If only we could eliminate racism (and sexism, ableism, cisgenderism…), we could deal with our differences in a civilized manner. Once more, I would cite in support of this contention John Rawls’ model of the “just” society as one in which all ascriptive characteristics such as race and gender are hidden behind the “veil of ignorance.”
If this sounds fantastic, one should consider that the invention of CRISPR-Cas9 and similar tools for gene modification justify, or at least enable, futurist speculation anticipating wholesale ameliorations of our genome—to the point where, for example, Yuval Harari’s best-selling Sapiens (Harper 2014 ) does not hesitate to predict the rise of a new bionic-cyborgian species to replace ours in the next century or so. Whatever the plausibility of such predictions, while the economy continues to function, the least hope of eliminating the material basis of ascriptive discrimination offers a useful pretext for kicking the can of “the good society” down the road, while fighting micro-aggressions en attendant.
To be continued…