Faintly detectable signs suggest to me that perhaps the time is coming in which GA can play a significant role in the world’s intellectual life.
As I have pointed out in a few recent Chronicles, GA, which emerged as French Theory was reaching its end, brings together the key ideas of Girard and Derrida, the principal representatives of the movement’s dichotomous currents. GA develops Girard’s anthropological insights while rectifying his limited concern with language; it puts aside the facile left-wing politics that helped make Derrida a “rock star” while deforming the real importance of his thought.
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, having put together a synthesis that effectively resolves the contradictions between its two components and emerges with a hypothesis relevant to every aspect of human culture, GA found itself without a base of support in an intellectual world that could find no use for it in the fundamental sense of enhancing the careers of those who might adopt it. Empirical scientists view GA as speculation without proof. And in today’s academy, aside from purely fact-based activities such as manuscript editing or bibliography, the humanities are dominated by defenders of victimary identities whose sole scholarly interest is in demonstrating the historical depths of their victimhood.
Throughout these years, my faith in the significance of GA has never waned, but my hope that it might be adopted as a new source of human self-understanding, narrowing the gap between the religious and the metaphysical, God-creates-man and man-creates-God, has not had much earthly nourishment.
No doubt the mere fact that Anthropoetics has kept going for over 25 years, and our annual meetings for 13+—we had to take this year off, but if we can’t have a live conference in 2021 we’ll do it on Zoom rather than not at all—is a sign that GA is more than a flash in the pan. That our group has largely held together all this time despite its academic near-invisibility is a clear sign that GA’s central idea is one that, once understood, is difficult to turn one’s back on.
Necessity being the mother of invention, our current political turmoil may well prove as productive of real progress as similar “mimetic crises” have been in the past. If GA’s “new way of thinking” was unpalatable in the aftermath of victory in the Cold War, today the West should welcome its synthesis of the rational and the transcendental as an affirmation of its own ultimate strength.
The originary hypothesis is not anti-scientific. Yet neither is it comparable to the kind of hypotheses that are taken seriously in the sciences, including the human sciences. A hypothesis, whether in physics or sociology, is only of value if it can be tested empirically. A purely heuristic schema that purports to model the early development of language is not testable/falsifiable in any conceivable manner. Paleontology cannot detect the traces of the acts it postulates, let alone the historical developments that might have led from ostensive to imperative and declarative utterances. Nor is it plausible that a simulation might be devised using either humans or AI “bots” to test the validity of its assertions. Yet these limitations do not mean that the theory is “meaningless,” nor that its application cannot lead to practical results.
As I pointed out from the very beginning in The Origin of Language (1981), the fact that we have no way of empirically testing these hypotheses should not oblige us to wait until the Last Judgment to, very simply, have a hypothesis of how language and culture began. Similarly, GA’s theory of originary morality may not be “testable,” but it is both grounded in its founding hypothesis and altogether compatible with our thinking about moral questions throughout the ages.
I have shown in recent Chronicles that the originary hypothesis provides an anthropological basis for the recent phenomenon of “wokeness,” and even explains why this metaphoric term is used. Such thinking is vastly inferior to Marxism, yet the Marxist idea of “raising the consciousness of the proletariat” does not have the revelatory ring of “woke.”
Nor it is useful merely to claim that such language is closer to religion than to rational thought. GA explains it all very simply: we “wake up” to this primitive egalitarian morality because it is our originary morality, as close to an “instinct” as any cultural phenomenon. Hence there is a genuine “awokening” here, even if its implementation be translated in modern terms into racial/gender preferences.
This explanation is not a simple debunking, but a derivation that allows one to point out to the “woke” that the truth of their originary intuition does not cancel the fact that society has advanced since its origin, nor that quota systems emphasize human difference rather than transcending it—transcendence being the one domain that the “woke,” along with a large portion of the rest of our society, given the poverty of civilized religion in our era, have little chance to encounter.
We can begin to see from this small example the virtues of a non-religious understanding of transcendence, one that does not declare that “God is not good,” but puts the “supernatural” in brackets while seeking to explain the transcendental elements of human culture from within. GA distinguishes the human/semiotic/cultural realm from all else in the universe by its transcendental relationship to its objects.
I have often referred to Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of the pour-soi as a preliminary version of the individual scene of representation. Sartre, as befits the great philosophical tradition, made no attempt to derive the human pour-soi from a pre-human state. Whereas the core idea of GA, even before discussing language, is to show that the human pour-soi is characterized by what Derrida in a context only superficially different would call la différance, the deferring-of… What is deferred is something that Derrida himself refused to understand in anthropological or biological terms. It is simply the instinctive/reflexive action of an animal which, even when it involves “thinking,” is connected to no communal scene of representation. To think with signs is altogether different from “thinking” by consulting memory-traces; signs belong to the community as well as to the individual subject.
At the birth of metaphysics, Plato conceived the Ideas of language simply as emanations of Being, which Hegel would derive at the “end of history” from “Being” itself. Since the Enlightenment, thinkers have sought the sources of human ideas in the depths of the psyche as well as in collective scenes such as Freud’s father-murder in Totem and Taboo. But the fact is that neither before nor since the elaboration of the theory of biological evolution has either philosophy or social science offered a cogent theory of the origin of either the human pour-soi or human language. The originary hypothesis is the first such theory to be both minimal and plausible.
I have called GA a “humanistic anthropology,” a formulation that has the disadvantage of suggesting that these two terms can only remain standing by leaning against each other. But the more pertinent point is that the absence of a single term combining both elements reflects the failure of scientific hypotheses about the human to explain the emergence and persistence of the characteristic quality of the “humanities,” the simplest name for which is transcendence.
Transcendence is an ambiguous term; it fails to distinguish between religious revelation and human innovation, between God-creates-man and man-creates-God. Metaphysics’ faith in the transcendentality of language long allowed philosophers to bracket this distinction. Since Hegel, Western thought has grappled with the need to liberate the human from what Nietzsche called the “constraint of language (sprachichen Zwange),” that is, to go beyond metaphysics to explain the transcendental in anthropological terms. Yet this has been attempted without seeking the key to this liberation in the worldly emergence of language itself. And this can be explained by the fact that metaphysics’ faith in the independent substantiality of propositional language has always remained implicit. It is only by defining metaphysics itself in anthropological terms, by its denial of originary, pre-propositional language as emergent from a prelinguistic state, that we make its overcoming possible.
The most recent attempt to name the “humanistic,” anti-metaphysical constituent that liberates the human pour-soi from the Laplacian rigor of a future wholly determined by the past was that of Derrida. Derrida had various “non-conceptual” names for this element, the best-known being deconstruction, and the most useful, différance, where the “a” in place of the usual “e” indicates that this is no longer an Idea in the metaphysical sense, while introducing the “deconstructive” element of change by inventing a gerundive form of différer, which means to defer as well as to differ.
The term deconstruction was deliberately nihilistic. It corresponded to Derrida’s cliché-Left politics, such as supporting Philadelphia cop-killer Abu Mumia-Jamal. But what is really being deconstructed is declarative, propositional language, the language of philosophy—that is, metaphysics.
The originary hypothesis allows us, for the first time, to define, or better put, delimit metaphysics by its failure to connect language with its pre-linguistic past. Propositional language is not originary language. Unconcerned with reconstructing the origin of language, post-metaphysical philosophers accuse propositional language, so to speak, of pretending to be originary. But the poor declarative sentence is not to blame. Its historical existence doesn’t prevent anyone from realizing that it cannot possibly have been the originary form of language.
The origin of metaphysics as a way of thinking goes back to Parmenides’ “way of truth,” which equates “truth” as a quality of propositions, declarative sentences, with a “metaphysical” quality of goodness, value, or moral worth. Philosophers to this day refer to “truth” in this way, and it tends to be assimilated to all other kinds of positive value, such as loyalty, honesty, etc.
But “truth” is simply a quality of declarative sentences. The reason we make such a fuss about it is that, in the normal course of events, we like to be able to assume that when someone enunciates a proposition, he is doing so to convey “true” information, rather than either lying or, to use Harry Frankfurt’s term, BSing. This has nothing to do with the nature of declarative sentences, but only with the way they are normally used; the ethical element is in the speech act and not inherent in “truth” itself.
In any case, the only useful way to get beyond this fetishism of “truth” is by tracing the declarative sentence back to its roots. But if we want to get back to the root of why making true statements is generally considered ethically valid—although not, pace Kant, when an SS man asks you whether there is a Jew in your basement—we have to understand the original purpose of language.
The purpose of the first utterance cannot have been to make true statements, that is, to convey information, but to avert violence. And to this purpose, this originary utterance, which we envisage essentially as a pointing, implicitly tells the greatest lie of all, which is nonetheless a transcendental truth: that there is only one significant thing in the universe, and it is this.
These are not merely academic questions. The thinkers who sought to transcend metaphysics, from Feuerbach and Marx to Girard and Derrida, were in different ways attempting to promote human freedom. As the example of Marx and his followers shows, the political implementation of these attempts was often massively counter-productive. This should impress on us the seriousness of getting the transcendence right.
Given that liberal democracy is still, sauf preuve du contraire, the most advanced, and surely the most freedom-promoting form of government, it makes sense to look to the current crisis of liberal democracy for an answer. Why, at this moment of crisis, have the two branches of French Theory, each in its own way, become irrelevant?
Deconstruction is superficially compatible with the Left; its nihilistic language suggests a preference for anarchy. If indeed language itself, assimilated to metaphysics and the world of Ideas as originally formulated in fifth and fourth century Athens, is essentially a deceptive construction intended to make the arbitrary power of a political leader appear as a “natural” emanation of revealed truth, then there is no way to “reform” it. One can only deconstruct it, which is to say, use it to “criticize itself,” but in a way more radical than Kant’s “critical” philosophy, which ultimately retains confidence in language as a vehicle of truth.
Nihilism can function only in a destructive context, in rejecting the idées reçues of the self-styled rational society it would tear down. Contemporary victimary politics implements deconstruction, albeit without using the term, not by critiquing the internal inconsistencies of traditional discourse, but by denouncing its whiteness, its failure to take into account its substrate of victimary oppression, presumably demonstrated by its race/gender non-representivity. Whence the unconsciously ironic use of the term critical (race, gender…) theory in the woke sense of subjecting all affirmations to “criticism” if their sources lack identitary equality.
In contrast to the anti-metaphysicians, René Girard looked for human truth in the cultural texts of literature and ultimately, religion. His original insight was that the bourgeois world, where the inertia of predominantly agricultural economies was giving way to the dynamism of the “capitalist” market, made problematic the individual’s search for models of behavior. It was no longer possible simply to do as one’s father and grandfather had done. What we call adolescence and its problems were created by the early modern age.
In Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (1961), Girard saw the Bildungsroman as the locus of the young person’s mediation by models, at first “external,” like Amadis for Quixote or Napoleon for Julian Sorel, but with the intensification of the market-model, increasingly internal to the protagonist’s own society, leading to the mimetic extremes Girard finds in Proust and Dostoevsky. The solution offered is that indicated in the book’s epigraph by Max Scheler: Man has either a God or an idol, meaning that the only salvation comes from rejecting our worldly idols and, like Alyosha Karamazov, making Christ our mediator.
But this implicit Christian message, later made explicit in a series of major works beginning with Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (1978), is not what has fueled most of the popular interest in Girard. It is rather the polemic value of his apparent “above the fray” stance toward mimetic desire, which he never renounces in his expository texts, even as he specifically denounces it, for example in his discussion of Molière’s Bourgeois gentilhomme (“Perilous Balance: A Comic Hypothesis”, MLN 87:7, Dec., 1972), where the maître de philosophie mocks the other maîtres as narrow specialists without recognizing them as his mirror images. In particular, the notion of the scapegoat, too rapidly generalized from the example of Jesus on the Cross, can be applied all too easily to the “victims” designated by the “woke” contingent. Girard’s own warning in Je vois Satan tomber comme un éclair (1999) about Hitler finding his revenge in the postwar degradation of the souci des victimes (see, e.g., Chronicle 637) is generally ignored.
But this does not mean the final defeat of French Theory. It merely suggests that its two components, both productive in their time—although Girard never attained the fame of Derrida in his heyday, I would venture to say that he remains the more widely read and appreciated today—can no longer survive as separate modes of thought.
GA brings together in our post-Enlightenment era the insights of religion and those of metaphysics, not as either theology or the sociology of religion has done, let alone in producing their ultimate Hegelian “synthesis,” but in offering to both a common originary terrain on which they can share their insights.
Today, religion needs such a theory to be able to maintain the validity of its revelations in the face of widespread skepticism and indifference. Clearly the biblical creation story, with its insights into the human condition, cannot be taken literally. But if it is indeed an allegory of Man’s emergence from the animal condition, where is the anthropological theory that can translate these insights into earthly terms without trivializing them?
In its attempt at a minimal reconstruction of a scene of hominization, GA is not without roots in the Western intellectual tradition. I observed some years ago (“The Sacred and the Social: Defining Durkheim’s Anthropological Legacy,” Anthropoetics 6:1, Spring/Summer 2000) that Girard was Durkheim’s most important heir, for attempting to show not just how religion helps maintain the “solidarity” that holds societies together, but how this arrangement may have begun in the first place. Setting aside Freud’s sexual emphasis in Totem and Taboo, Girard finds a minimal originary hypothesis in the mimetic crisis and the control of violence through sacrifice.
But what remains lacking in this scenario is what specifically makes us human—in the first place, language. The Crucifixion is not a model of human origin, but, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the revelation of its ultimate explanation. It is GA’s originary hypothesis that explains what kind of “sacrifice” might have given rise to language, as well as to the “woke” morality of universal reciprocal exchange.
Every religion affirms, each in its way, that the sacred and the significant are one. With GA, this affirmation becomes as well the basis of secular anthropology.