One of the problems that has slowed the development of GA is that the academic world as currently constituted is ill-suited to provide it with a potential audience, whereas its potential popular appeal (WE DISCOVERED THE ORIGIN OF LANGUAGE!!) is far from contemporary concerns. Yet it is indeed a “new way of thinking,” one all the more valuable in that it offers a perspective on the human from an angle that is irreducible to the specialties and preoccupations of the current academy.
No doubt it is no coincidence that this idea emerged in the late 1970s, precisely when the traditional genteel world of the American university as it had existed since the advent of graduate education in the mid-19th century was, to my mind quite brutally, transformed into a mass bureaucracy. Thus the goal of “advancement of knowledge” in the old, relatively unproblematic, self-confident sense gave way within a few decades to blatant careerism, with hundreds of candidates for each position, and increasingly shameless backscratching among those who “made it,” not even to speak of the abject virtue-signaling of the current “diversity”-oriented institution. To what extent this has affected the hard sciences, where real research progress is being made, I am not qualified to say, but it clearly has not merely politicized the humanities and social sciences, but most regrettably, imposed on them a faddish conformism that we more commonly associate with the world of Entertainment Weekly.
Fortunately, the origin of many of GA’s ideas in the ever-popular—and religion-grounded—thought of René Girard has allowed it to maintain a narrow viability in the field of literary studies. Thus despite its moniker’s “anthropology,” nearly all the members of the GASC work in literature departments, mostly English and/or Comparative Literature.
Nonetheless, the greatest intellectual affinities/rivalries of GA as a way of thinking are no doubt with philosophy—and this despite the important lesson, learned from Girard, of philosophy’s failure, in contrast with religion, to go to the root of the human. To René this intuition came naturally from his religious background. I have attempted to root it more concretely in philosophy’s incapacity to theorize the anthropological origin of language, which the Platonic conception of the Ideas denies, and which even the more adventurous pre-Socratics never put in truly anthropological terms.
Given that il n’est jamais trop tard pour bien faire, I intend to pursue the reflections of the last couple of Chronicles by returning once more to the originary hypothesis to flesh it out, this time less in the direction of language as such than in that of what can broadly be called the human understanding.
A GA Cogito
In the previous Chronicle, I postulated, although I did not really demonstrate, that even if mechanical devices (i.e., computers) could simulate the processes of human thought—and given the progress of AI in a few decades, it would be foolhardy to set limits on its eventual accomplishments—the very existence of such devices is dependent on the transcendent nature of the human scene of representation. I even hazarded a comparison between this statement of the “incompleteness” of the mechanical universe and Gödel’s proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic. But even if we accept its truth, how does that allow the central intuition of our new way of thinking to advance the question of the specificity of human self-consciousness, the linguistic and cultural pour-soi, with its eternal dilemmas of freedom and determinism, atheism and belief?
In the first place, and I think most importantly, deriving the human from an act of deferral on a collective scene takes us out of the solipsism that traditionally surrounds this question. Descartes’ Cogito, arguably the originary moment of modern “philosophy of consciousness,” is an introspective attempt to draw a conclusion from introspection itself. If I can think about whether I am, then I must be—something that thinks. This reasoning remains, needless to say, within the metaphysical/philosophical tradition, for which the existence of mature propositional language is never in question. GA’s “first man” could not conceive this syllogism; how could he ask the question “am I?” let alone “who am I?” before using language to communicate with his fellows in order to avert potential violence? Yet we must reflect more deeply on what this “first man” would be capable of, since by our hypothesis, his single ostensive sign is already an unambiguous marker of the difference between humanity and the rest of the universe—including all the “intelligent machines” that later human evolution will lead him to invent.
The subject of language, that is, he who takes the initiative in languaging (see Chronicle 632), can be said to be I, the-one-who-is-speaking. But if the rest of the world understood this, in the profound vocabulary of the late Richard Rorty (see Chronicle 331), merely as someone “making noises,” then he would be no “subject” at all. That is, in order to language in Andresen’s sense, he must always-already belong to—even if it is he who inaugurates—a language community. Else he finds himself in the absurd dilemma of the one who first acquired the “language gene” and who speaks, boldly and eloquently, but with no one but himself to understand him. Whereas the originary community was ex hypothesi constituted by the sharing of the originary sign, and what we presume to have been its reciprocal exchange in the first human ritual—one that, if successful, found its completion in the physically nourishing sparagmos.
There is no reason to claim that this experience of the original ostensive speaker/signer fully constitutes the human self as we know it, the self of the Cogito. But what is essential is that this experience provide this self’s minimal kernel, and in a way that would not be discoverable by working backward from the finished product. The “first man” cannot think or say, “I am.” He does not even have a sign for “I.” But he has already constituted himself the subject of his discourse, not in order to affirm his individual selfhood, but because he wants the others on the scene to be aware that he has renounced/sacralized the desired object.
That is, before we can even talk about the collective renunciation/deferral of the newly constituted community, the first sign-user is the one who first intends that his “aborted gesture” be not merely canceled but repurposed as a means of communication to the others of his non-appropriative intention. Which is to say that the birth of human self-consciousness comes not solely with the emission of the sign, but with the awareness of this emission as a means of communication, without which it would not be a (symbolic) sign. The signer does not, and at this stage, cannot, think “therefore I am,” but he expresses the substance of this thought by the fact that he intends his “languaging” in order that his fellows recognize this non-appropriative intention, which, because it is not a mere turning-away, but a desiring-in-awe, we can already begin to call “worship.”
Thus the meta-message conveyed by the sign is not simply the redundant “I am signing/designating X,” which would add nothing to the sign itself and would therefore be as effectively unrepresentable as the signals of our animal ancestors, but “by signing/designating X, I am not seeking to appropriate X for myself, yet continue to acknowledge its universal desirability.” The “I am” at this stage is an affirmation of the individual self’s union, both in desire and interdiction, with the nascent language community, without which it could not exist as a human, sign-using being.
To pursue this line of reasoning as in TOOL, once there is a sign for X, it will not be forever restricted to the “meaning” sacred/interdicted, but will in the course of time become attached to the object of this interdiction, and eventually come to function as an imperative to command the object’s presence. This is a consequence of its very existence qua sign, which evokes without physically reproducing it the originary scenic configuration with the object at the center, and is consequently of necessity less sacred, hence potentially less restricted to its original context, than the object itself.
For the “presence” that the sign designates is ambiguous. The presence of the sacred, which we too easily call a god or just God, but which in its simplest form is better represented by the old-fashioned term godhead, unlike the physical presence of a sacrificial animal, is not divided among the participants, but shared by all of them. It is this distinction that founds the sense of essence or Being, what is contained in the word as a signified, and which allows us to grasp its transcendent standing with respect to the objects of nature. Once this power is experienced in the word, its exercise within and outside the ritual context will be open to empirical experience—as, presumably at a later date, will be the possibility of the declarative as an alternative to the performance commanded by the imperative.
For an animal, a sign is a behavior, like taking a step or swallowing. Its status as a token of a “type” is something we as human observers can certainly ascertain, but the type-token association is in no way present to the animal’s self-consciousness, any more than the “type” of an animal is “present” to each individual specimen. Such abstract conceptions are available only to a creature possessing language.
The GA Categorical Imperative
Kant had three formulations of the “categorical imperative” in the 1785 Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, along with several other variants. Of the three, the best known, because the most explicit, is (to quote the Wikipedia):
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
(In this brief exposition, I think we can stipulate without proof the validity of Kant’s claim of the logical equivalence between this and the more abstract:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.)
The sharpness of this formulation from a GA perspective resides in the fact that it explicitly reflects the communal nature of the human, not simply as what the French call a “pious wish,” but as an anthropological truth. For if I take another human as a “means” rather than an “end,” I am implicitly excluding him from the originary dialogue that founds humanity, not attending to his participation in the reciprocal exchange of signs, from which nonetheless all humanity is presumably descended. That slavery and other forms of coercion violate this imperative goes without saying.
Some further examples
Similarly, existentialist formulas like Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” or Heidegger’s “man is the shepherd of Being” can be clarified by situating them in the originary context.
In the first case, the human languager is not what he “is,” but what he does. The sign-using human is defined in action—a point that, as we saw in Chronicle 632, has recently been applied directly to linguistics on the example of J. L. Austin’s speech acts.
In the second, the easily mystified term “Being” expresses the substantiality of the original sacred/significant object. Were we not its “shepherds” but merely, as a superficial reading of Girard might suggest, its sparagmatic destroyers, there would be no human at all.
In the same vein, Saint Anselm’s “ontological proof,” which depends on considering existence as a necessary “perfection” of the “most perfect being,” is, from the standpoint of standard philosophy, absurd, as Kant among others demonstrated: thinking something doesn’t make it so. But if we understand the “perfection” of this “being” in originary terms as its sacrality, that is, as the necessary guarantee that the permanence of the object’s transcendent being, in contrast with its material substance, will not be violated on the scene of representation, then we can understand Anselm’s reasoning as an etiology of the signs of language: the originary sacred referent of language must first “exist” in its “perfection” in order to become the signified of a sign. Whether or not we accept this reasoning can then be shown to be contingent on our position in the God-creates-man/man-creates-God controversy; is the sacred a reality beyond the human world, or its internal (hence subjective) foundation?
This same procedure could be extended to elucidate the characteristics normally attributed to God. Immortality, omnipotence, ubiquity, omniscience—all are extrapolations from the “perfection” of the sacred object and its power, mediated by the sign, to interdict the implementation of human desire. But because religious belief, from which the element of faith cannot be absent, belongs to a different category than philosophical thought, it must therefore be treated in a different place.