How does generative anthropology free us from the limitations of metaphysics, the domain of classical philosophy from Plato on, characterized by a faith in the independence of linguistic representation from the world it represents and from the worldly needs of its human creators?
I began by attempting to understand the origin of language in the context of Girard’s anthropology (The Origin of Language, 1981), and, reconceiving its domain as generative anthropology, extended it in the direction of literary culture (The End of Culture, 1985), religious revelation (Science and Faith, 1990), and previous attempts at conceiving human institutions as the products of an originary scene, beginning with Hobbes’ version of the social contract (The Scenic Imagination, 2007).
La différance, the Derridean component of generative anthropology, was clearly rooted in Derrida’s paradoxical stance in les marges de la philosophie. This, along with the Heideggerian background of this mode of thinking, which unfavorably contrasted the metaphysical basis of Platonic philosophy with the Presocratics’ vaguer but more inclusive intuitions of Being, made me realize that to do justice to GA’s own historical roots required that I situate it within the drive to go beyond metaphysics that led to the splitting off of Continental post-Hegelian philosophy from the Analytic or Anglo-Saxon variety.
That despite their differences, Girard and Derrida could be understood to have shared this common goal, as noted by Andrew McKenna in Violence and Difference (1992), suggested the usefulness of seeing both in the context of “French Theory” as it played itself out in literature departments and the soft sciences in the United States. Although Girard’s name has rarely been mentioned in this context, it was he, along with Richard Macksey, who created French Theory by bringing Derrida and other major French thinkers to Johns Hopkins for “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man“ in 1966—coincidentally the year in which I obtained my PhD, with no connection to and little awareness of the conference.
To understand the limits of the metaphysical, Derrida’s works offer a whole catalogue of paradoxical non-concepts, from deconstruction and grammatology to différance and archi-écriture, all of which stand in the margins of metaphysical thought and the concomitant structuralist Western views of language. Although Derrida himself never sought to situate these notions in an anthropological context, they are of great help in the task of teasing out the constitutive elements of originary language.
I have previously dealt at length with la différance or deferral/difference, since its translation into behavioral terms is clear, and indeed essential to a hypothesis that sees language and the rest of the cultural sphere as founded on the deferral of instinctual behavior—the insertion of a Sartrean néant between the pour-soi and its object that constitutes the human mind as a scene of representation.
But there is also in French Theory a whole vocabulary of terms referring to the non-originarity of the cultural process, from toujours-déjà to the arché, which expresses in quasi-historical terms the paradoxical impossibility of determining the origin of human language. Claiming that DNA, and why not the periodic table, is always-already a form of language should be understood less as a denial of the specificity of human language than as a challenge to other thinkers to define this specificity—a challenge that I believe GA has met.
There is no need to maintain the paradoxical titillation of the always-already. No doubt the originary hypothesis should not be interpreted to suggest that the event it describes occurred at a single point in space-time that divides the prehuman world from the human. But as I have insisted on many occasions, we cannot wait until a fossil-hunter uncovers the remains of “the” originary scene to begin defining originary humanity and its language. That the advent of the sign marks a watershed in what we know of the history of the universe requires that, in the absence of conclusive physical evidence from the era in which it occurred, we formulate a hypothesis of its occurrence to allow us to understand what it means for humans to be users of signs.
The frustrations of post-classical philosophers do not justify, nor really imply, the denigration of metaphysics itself. Defined as the use of language that brackets the question of its historical human origin, and in particular, the derivation of the declarative sentence or proposition from more elementary forms, metaphysics can be thought of simply as non-fiction—given that fiction, like scripture, points to a transcendent source, be it only that of the author, who even when he says “I” is never simply within the work. Only metaphysical language lets us understand the world, and even ourselves, in verifiable, objective terms.
Natural science is by this definition entirely metaphysical; it trusts language to specify the realities of the world that scientific hypotheses put in relation to each other. Mathematics, which is constructed from axioms and not from empirical observations, is the most extreme example of a science in this sense.
It is curious how common it is for those trained in analytic philosophy to consider mathematics, and often language as well, as independent of the human mind, as though these systems were eternally out there in the “cloud” waiting for us to download them. What we discover in mathematics are the less obvious consequences of the axioms that we created to begin with; to claim that these implicit analytic consequences “exist” independently of the human mind is absurd, unless we accept the idea of a transcendental divinity who has always already thought them. (Whether or not God has proved Fermat’s Last Theorem to his own satisfaction is awaiting further revelation.)
This being true, why then have philosophers since the Romantic era felt constrained by the prison-house of language within which their speculations were confined, as though the metaphysical conception of language as a neutral mechanism for human communication were both unsatisfactory and inescapable?
Inescapable, surely, by definition, since philosophy consists in stringing together presumably logically connected series of propositions, and propositions exist only in language. The paradoxical language of Derrida and other post-structuralists is as close as one can come to reaching beyond propositional language, an activity that Derrida was careful to locate not outside but in the margins of philosophy as traditionally practiced. (We might mention as well the later Wittgenstein’s discussion in his Philosophische Untersuchungen of “language games” involving imperatives in contrast to the propositions/declaratives of his Tractatus.)
It was arguably Nietzsche who first made explicit his frustration with philosophical language, and Heidegger who sought to situate it historically by defining Plato’s metaphysics as cutting off language from its roots in Being as intuited by the pre-Socratics—Being, which in Heidegger’s vocabulary escaped the status of a mere word, along with the numerous other redefined words and etymological traces in which he sought revelations of an intuition of Being beneath language. Like Derrida’s non-concepts, Heidegger’s neologisms are most productively understood as groping toward the anthropological basis of language.
Using la différance as a test case, given the ease with which it can be translated into biological-psychological terms, the question GA poses to its skeptics is: what residue of opacity, of mystery, remains in this term—and by extension, in all the others—once it has been translated into the vocabulary of the originary hypothesis?
The notion of deferral is in essence psychological: one defers doing something as the result, not of an inhibition, but of a conscious decision. But it is the creation of difference that differentiates la différance from a simple delay.
Différance is, in Derrida’s text, a feature in the first place of the signifier, whence the coquetry of the letter “a” which is pronounced just like the original “e,” hence detectable only in writing. For Derrida, deferral inhabits language because we must constantly understand each linguistic element, phoneme or letter, as a differential selection from a paradigm that includes many others. (See Derrida’s “La différance,” in Théorie d’ensemble; Seuil, 1968: 41-66.)
Yet difference within a paradigm, whether of sounds, letters, or meanings, is not the minimal example of semiotic difference. The minimal difference that deferral determines in language is that between significance and non-significance, and in the minimal language of the originary event, between the one thing that is significant, that demands a sign, and all the rest of the world’s things that do not—the minimal “paradigm” that must logically precede any more complex one.
La différance, the delay that creates/becomes difference, which the originary hypothesis situates in the abortion of the act of appropriation, is inherent in the use of any sign, independently of any possible differences among signs. Deferral occurs in the first place between the world of reality, thought or perceived on the subject’s internal scene of representation, and the world of signs by means of which this internal scene is to be communicated, if only to the subject himself; it is the trace of the originary deferral of the act of appropriation.
Perhaps yet more revelatory is the case of the deliberately ungraspable concept of archi-écriture as the presumed ontological basis of speech and writing. This notion is less portable than différance because it is bound up with Derrida’s fundamental conception of language. The very point of De la grammatologie (Minuit, 1968) is that speech, which Derrida convincingly demonstrates that metaphysical/philosophical thought beginning with Plato treats as the sole authentic form of language, as opposed to writing that is only its reproduction, is always-already a mode of “writing” in that, like the written word, the spoken word is not grasped in an instantaneous presence but, like the signs of writing, deferred.
We would . . . suggest that . . . original, natural language, etc., had never existed, that it had never been intact, untouched by writing, that it had always itself been a form of writing. Archi-writing . . . that we only continue to call writing because it communicates in its essence with the common concept of writing. . . .
This archi-writing . . . cannot, can never be recognized as the object of a science. It is precisely what can never be reduced to the form of presence. (82-83; my translation)
Thus Derrida claims that language is always-already writing because it is not present but a deferred trace, and thus already a form of writing. I see no reason to contest this point, which is Derrida’s way of denying the ideal atemporality of language that is the basis for metaphysics. Indeed, whether spoken or written, language is a product of deferral; it is not a mode of “instantaneous” communication, or more pointedly, not, like animal signals, instinctual.
But this does not require that we enmesh ourselves in the paradoxical non-objectivity of archi-writing. In explaining that language is not a mode of immediate presence but its deferral, GA can express this non-immediacy in non-paradoxical terms because, as Derrida does not, it attaches the use of language, beginning with the originary speech-act, to our worldly, temporal existence.
If the purpose of language is to allow us to defer our instinctual relationship with the central object and to communicate this deferral to each other in order to avert potential violence, using a sign to indicate the trace of the appetitive drive that we have deferred, then to claim that speech is a mode of “presence” must be qualified by indicating that presence in this scenic sense exists as such only in the mode of deferral. We become present to each other on the scene of representation through the mediation of the sign because we cannot unthinkingly appropriate the object either individually or serially.
This “presence” of speech that Derrida wants to show to be already a form of “writing” expresses in his terms the claim of metaphysics to the transparent neutrality of language, obliterating the material temporality of linguistic communication and, from an originary standpoint, reproducing the transparency of the originary scene mediated by the sacred. In contrast, the use of writing in the absence of such presence lacks this ideal transparency.
What is missing from Derrida’s account, and from the intuition that presided as well over the metaphysical devaluation of writing, is the notion of the scene. Here presence is mediated by deferral in a way that creates a human community. And this communal element, absent from the written word, is recreated by Platonic dialogue in its scenes of conversation.
Once we understand human language in the terms of the originary hypothesis, we need not pronounce on Derrida’s extra-linguistic thesis that not just metaphysics but pre-revolutionary politics, with its prolongation in the discourse of structuralism, is dependent on the myth of presence, which for Derrida is exemplified by the figure of authority speaking to a crowd, that is, by a mode of domination in which an individual rather than a divine figure occupies the scenic center.
In the final analysis, Derrida’s questioning of philosophical language remains incomplete. Yet in contrast not only with the philosophical tradition that followed from Plato’s consecration of the transcendental status of the Ideas, but with all previous attempts to realize Nietzsche’s desire to escape the constraint of propositional language, Derrida’s analyses constitute a giant step toward revealing the anthropological root of language.
All that was lacking for la différance to give birth to the sign was the intuition that semiotic sapience had become necessary to the physical preservation of at least one community of genus homo.