The just-concluded GASC in my hometown of New York City stands out even among the series of successful conferences of recent years. As these conferences have progressed, their focus on the theory itself has increased. Gone are the participants who neither know nor care about GA but just “came along for the ride” to pad their CVs. Gone too are those who take the filial relationship between GA and René Girard as a pretext to remain ignorant of the former. But above all, this conference, which included active participation by my fellow “old Girardians,” Andrew McKenna and Sandy Goodhart, was marked by a vigorous esprit de corps. There was the same genuine sense of community as in our previous “small” conferences without an outside speaker, but this time the community had expanded to include a good number of new faces. Several young people attracted to GA by Adam Katz’s blogs betokened an infusion of new energy and gave promise of renewal and expansion beyond academic frontiers.
I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the support that this group has provided for our new way of thinking over all these years. Among the participants were Ken Mayers, who as a Comp Lit student at UCLA in the 80s encouraged me to offer what became a series of GA seminars; Matt Schneider and Richard van Oort—now president of the GASC—who along with Tom Bertonneau and me founded Anthropoetics in 1995 after the 1994 special MLA session; Andrew Bartlett, whose “GA Thinking Event” at UBC in Vancouver in 2007 inaugurated the series of (so far) thirteen consecutive annual conferences; this year’s conference organizers: Ian Dennis, the GASC’s perennial Secretary-Treasurer and all-around adult-in-the-room and Adam Katz, who not only did the work on the ground in organizing the conference, but whose blogs attracted a contingent of young “independent scholars” to the conference; Matthew Taylor, Marina Ludwigs, and Magdalena Zlocka-Dubrowska, who ran our three previous and highly successful conferences in Japan, Sweden, and Poland. And Martin Fashbaugh and Ben Barber, whom we hadn’t seen for a while, and British cyberneticker Dominic Mitchell. We regretted the absence of faithful GAer and former GASC president Peter Goldman.
I can’t predict what this means for the future. But even in terms of marketability, the mere durability of a group of intellectuals focused on an idea that goes back some 35 years, that is minimalistic rather than cultishly eccentric, and which has never received any publicity or more than passive institutional support—in all my years at UCLA, neither Anthropoetics nor these conferences ever warranted a line in the university’s reams of promotional material—and yet that continues to thrive and slowly expand… this strikes me as being newsworthy in itself.
No doubt today the world of humanistic thought is in a highly problematic state. It is easy enough to denounce “the Left” as the source of the problem, but the burgeoning power of the victimocracy, whose influence in the academic world has sharply increased in response to the Trump presidency, clearly answers a real social need.
Hence the unending series of horror stories, one of which—the Sullivan-Weinstein affair at Harvard—I commented on in my previous Chronicle—cannot be brought to an end by expressions of the ridicule that they clearly merit. The reduction of the humanities to a playground for infantile resentment reflects the diminished vigor of what had been the Burkean presuppositions of a common culture. And the decline of the traditional prestige of the humanities and of the Western civilization that they once treated with reverence promotes the sciences to the sole purveyors of collectively acknowledged truth. No doubt even the sciences have felt the influence of victimary trends in their “softer” domains—hiring “diversity” and the population survey-dependent social sciences—but the core of the scientific enterprise, which, we should not forget, provides the research grants that are the mainspring of university finance, continues to generate objective, useful results, even as the humanities increasingly become the modern-day equivalents of panem et circenses.
Under these circumstances, the prospects for the academic acceptance of GA, which challenges science on (a little bit of) its own terrain, cannot be overly favorable. The victimification of the humanities makes scientists, and those in the humanities domain who can claim some title to scientific method—linguists, historians, practitioners of the “digital humanities”—all the more anxious to deny the validity of an intellectual program that cannot but include a speculative element. Yet this element is essential to the originary hypothesis; it is not a mere temporary expedient awaiting confirmation in the laboratory. It is what makes GA a genuinely “new way of thinking,” and that affirms the necessity of a transcendental understanding of the human even for those who do not “believe in God.”
Trying to justify this “transcendentalism” is a most instructive exercise. The hypothesis describes an originary event, affirming that such an event must have existed given the series of human events that has succeeded it, although our conceivable knowledge of human prehistory makes the possibility of verifying any such specific event all but inconceivable.
I had not hitherto given much thought to the ontological status of such a claim, other than to distinguish it as a new way of thinking from its three rival thought systems: the laboratory-based “hard sciences,” philosophy’s metaphysical presupposition of language’s eternal neutrality, and the revelatory basis of religious thought. But we might do well to reflect more deeply on the transcendentality that such thinking implies.
Although all human languages are similar enough to suggest a common ancestor, going back to the very beginning makes this supposition unnecessary. One of the positive results of recent evolutionary studies of language is to suggest that the markers of syntax are not so different from the (other) signifiers of language to warrant a genetically determined “language module” in the Chomskian sense. Evolutionary processes would suffice to explain the basic similarity of linguistic structures across all languages, with or without a common ancestor.
Hence GA has no problem accepting the possibility that “hominization” as we describe the result of the originary event may have occurred at different times in different places, although the final result of the process has clearly been biological as well as linguistic near-uniformity, such that any newborn child can learn any language. It seems far from established that Neanderthals or Denisovians or any other hominin species had language in our sense, and while this is certainly an intriguing question for paleontologists, it is not pertinent to humanists’ concern with our species as it is.
Let me then pose a hypothetical question. Suppose that some future technique, analogous to spectroscopy that allows us to identify the chemical composition of stars billions of light-years away, permits scientists to discover unambiguous evidence of the, or an, originary scene in our sense. Would GA then remain obligatorily “transcendentalist” or could it rejoin the scientific world of anthropology tout court? That is, would it become a scientific hypothesis like any other, or would it continue to presuppose an ontological transformation of the kind that religion accounts for by revelation but that we would be called upon to explain in terms that would at the very least stretch the limits of the scientific method?
Here I am abstracting from the research possibilities opened up by this hypothetical discovery, which would presumably include the search for further such discoveries, for example, to verify the transition from ostensive to imperative to declarative. The question is this: In what sense would GA continue to insist that the communal force that imposed the first sign as the recognition of the sacred interdiction of the center to any individual cannot be understood as the mere sum of the oppositions of the individual members of the group to the appropriative activity of the former Alpha and of any possible successor, but must be given a non-additive, properly transcendental status? Or to put it another way, that the interdiction would appear from the outset as discovered rather than merely imposed by necessity.
The answer, once the question is clearly posed, seems equally clear. The human quality of the sign depends on an implicit “social contract,” but one that can only be understood as guaranteed by a moral law. Just as one cannot interpret the commandment “thou shalt not kill” as the outcome of an agreement among human contractants, but as a law we must accept as right “in itself,” so the originary sacred cannot be understood merely as the product of a common agreement to defer acts of appropriation until the members of the group are prepared to divide it peacefully among themselves.
The law that interdicts the first sacred object must be understood as possessing the sense of rightness that we associate with moral laws, and as such, of being in an anticipatory sense a religious agreement, one that ties the group together as if under the authority of a “greater power.” The members of the group in the originary event must not act merely out of fear, but come to feel it would be wrong to seek to appropriate what is sacred in defiance of the authority of the group. It is this right and wrong judgment that defines human morality and that implies itstranscendental ground, just as what I have called the “moral model” of originary reciprocity, still so powerful among all of us, depends not simply on the resentment provoked by its violation, but on the sense of injustice that it arouses, whether or not justified by the facts.
I am not altogether happy with the current trend of demoting Freud to a cultish guru whose compartmentalization of the human psyche, once an object of awe, has become a target of scorn; brûlez ce que vous avez adoré. Freud’s anthropological intuition had its limitations, but it is difficult to imagine Girard’s conception of human origin without reference to the father-murder scene in Totem and Taboo.
Freud’s model of the human psyche as the struggle of the Ego to reconcile Id and Superego notably includes the latter as the seat of the transcendental in the individual, just as GA posits its necessary presence in more abstract terms. This does not constitute proof of the existence of such a module in the psyche/brain/soul, but the fact that Freud, who was after all a scientist, felt the need to postulate it is a corroboration of our conception from someone whose understanding of the human mind/soul was long the world’s most influential, and which has not been replaced by any more coherent formulation.
The Superego is what its name implies; a component of the mind that somehow transcends the biological demands of the individual organism. Its difference from analogous instinctual modules such as oblige ants and other social insects to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the aggregate “community,” is that the laws of the Superego can be explicitly stated and above all experienced. The discomfort we feel for disobeying one is not an unanalyzable visceral reflex; it can be explained as guilt for having done something wrong.
The sense of right and wrong, our conscience, is, I would submit, the mark of the same transcendence that we find in the more elaborate structures of religious belief. We need not follow Freud in attributing the Superego to the “introjection” of the father. In the family structures with which Freud was familiar, enforcement of moral rules was no doubt the father’s role, but the important thing is that in joining the human community, the child constructs a conscience, a sense of right and wrong, which is transcendental by nature, irreducible to considerations of individual or even collective “utility” in the sense that Bentham and his successors gave to the term. But although the acquisition of this moral sense may be biologically dependent on that of language, the converse is not the case. This truth should become the basis of efforts at preventing the degenerate family structures that our welfare system instead knowingly encourages.
I will conclude this Chronicle by expressing once more my gratitude to those who have kept the GA project going for all these years. I am thankful for all the hard work this has involved, particularly by those who for the past thirteen years have organized these conferences, and above all, for the “transcendental” confirmation their efforts have provided me: that the originary hypothesis is not just an abstract construction, but a significant step forward in the understanding of the human.