In a comment on Chronicle 692, Adam Katz raised an important question: how can the procedure of originary phenomenology be applied to the universal human sense of ancestry? Whether or not individuals worship their ancestors, every culture has a sense of its collective past and initiates the young into the group and its culture, including of course its language. Whether or not parents see their children as their personal heirs, or “honor thy father and mother” leads to “ancestor worship,” they cannot help but be aware of the communal continuity under the aegis of the sacred.
Adam’s comments raise a more general question, which I think it is of particular importance to face at this juncture. Although kinship structures, marriage customs, and all the other aspects of what we might call “elementary culture,” preliterate and pre- or primitively agricultural—the fast-disappearing terrain of classical anthropological field work—are not simple consequences of the originary hypothesis, the hypothesis supplies a point of departure that by defining in principle the boundary between animal and human activity permits a sharper analysis of the empirical data.
GA is accused by social scientists of being “unproven.” This accusation falls flat so long as we restrict our analysis to originary phenomenology, where the attitudes discussed can be shown to have clear roots both in the hypothetical scene of origin and in our own experience—communal “ritual” feasts being the most obvious. Attempts to derive human practices from an extrapolation of animal practices are methodologically flawed, because they hide rather than focusing on what separates the human from the animal. And to make this separation appropriately salient requires an independent originary hypothesis.
But where there is evidence of human institutions beyond the level of the originary event, no attempt to derive such things as kinship structures or ancestor-worship from the hypothesis is sustainable, let alone presentable in a professional context, without thorough consideration of the empirical data.
This is a domain that has scarcely been explored, given the literary and cultural interests of the few practitioners of GA. But given recent writing in the domain of language origin (see, e.g., Chronicles 567, 632), I think there is good reason to presume that an empirically grounded analysis of these and other aspects of social organization, in both pre-modern and modern societies, can greatly benefit from the point of departure supplied by the originary hypothesis.
On the other hand…
There is still a world, albeit shrunken, where philosophy is read for its insights into the human condition. Modern existential philosophy remains relevant to its readers to the extent that they can be made to identify with the writer’s “personal” phenomenology, which does not maintain Husserl’s disciplined focus on perception (itself open to “deconstruction,” as in Derrida’s inaugural La voix et le phénomène [PUF 1967]), but offers an exploration of the human psyche based on intuitions presented as self-evident truths that the reader is invited to share. Needless to say, if the author’s examples are not persuasive, he will not be successful, but even if they are, his analyses are not only unverifiable, but lack an established point of departure such as the originary hypothesis provides.
Existential phenomenology, even at its best, as in Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant, is grounded only on itself. By its very nature, it cannot begin from a commonly accepted point of departure, since its purpose is to put our common-sense notions of the human into question. The heuristic supplied by the originary hypothesis provides, in contrast, such a point of departure. To the extent that the reader finds it sufficiently plausible, it allows for discussion on the basis of shared intuition.
A few years ago I was asked to give a talk to a local association devoted to the works of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-95), the Jewish existentialist philosopher and Talmudic commentator whose philosophical masterwork, published in 1961, is entitled Totalité et infini.
In reading through this volume, I was struck by a point that it seemed to me had been raised by no other thinker of his school: that of what he calls “fecundity,” our relationship with our progeny, more specifically, that between father and son.
It is hard to avoid the inference that this inclusion reflected Levinas’ Jewish sense of existential insecurity, enhanced by the recent memory of the Holocaust. We discover here, as in all existentialist writings, a solicitation of the reader’s own experience, an attempt to persuade us of the inherent truth of reactions that the author conceives of as fundamental for himself and consequently for us as well.
A more celebrated example, the best-known feature of Levinas’ phenomenology, is his insistence on the “infinite” that one sees in the face of the Other. As is customary in this genre, this intuition is taken for granted as an experience that we all share. Yet this assimilation of the sacred to the human other has always struck me as derivative of Christianity rather than a fundamental human or even Jewish experience.
One can see this infinity of course, and I have no doubt that Levinas’ text is faithful to his own experience, but I am confident that many readers experience it as I do, as asking us to see what Levinas sees, rather than reminding us of what we have already seen.
These limitations do not deprive Levinas’ phenomenology of valid insights into the human condition. But what the originary hypothesis can contribute to our reading of his work, and that of any thinker who purports to describe our foundational intuitions, is a criterion for separating the products of the hypothetical originary scene from those of later stages of human history. For in this latter case, the historic background—that of the Christian world in which Jewish thinkers like Levinas have long been immersed—is well known, and should therefore be referred to as an influence on the writer’s intuitions. This is preferable to tacitly maintaining the pretense of “phenomenological reduction” that Husserl sought to apply to experiences reflected on in laboratory-like austerity.
In the case at issue, the originary hypothesis does not suggest that the “infinite” is what we see in the eyes of the Other, but accepting “infinite” as a metaphor for sacred transcendence, we are able better to appreciate the connection of this experience with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. On the one hand, the sacred remains “infinite,” beyond human grasp, on the other, we can find a vision of it in the eyes of the Other, who shares with us the blessing of the originary sacred. Such analysis can only enrich intuitions such as Levinas’.
The originary hypothesis is not a magic key to history; it is a theory of the origin of the human scene and its cultural avatars. But the discipline it provides to originary phenomenology comes from its sharing of a well-defined model, one that none of us has experienced in person, but that I have no reason to believe is beyond the intuitive capacity of anyone exposed to it.
This means that when we are discussing matters that are not directly dependent on our origin, hence hypothetically on our originary model, we should refrain from extrapolating from this model as though, by beginning from it as Hegel from Being, we could reconstruct all of history. The elements of the originary scene are found everywhere in culture, but we cannot simply “derive” culture from them.
What we can do, in confronting a cultural phenomenon, is to understand it scenically, as I sought to do in Originary Thinking when discussing the “scenes” of literature over the centuries. By focusing our attention on the scene of culture, the “frame” of all artworks as well as religious ceremonies, we can call on our scenic intuition of the works themselves in so to speak “laboratory” conditions that “bracket” the real world in which the artwork was produced and/or performed.
For example, the key difference I postulated between the Classical and the Neo-Classical scene, most directly visible in the theater, is that the Classical protagonist never sees himself as on stage, whereas this is the primary characteristic of the Neo-Classical protagonist who, inhabiting a Christian society, must consciously assume his scenic, public role.
This phenomenon is clearly visible in the two arguably greatest modern tragedies: Hamlet and Racine’s Phèdre. In the latter, the heroine is constantly driven by a desire to leave the stage—to the point of dreaming of being lost in the Labyrinth—on which, in Racine’s cruelly scenic world, she must remain until death. Hamlet, in a very different tradition, is motivated by a similar fear of “playing his role,” which he seeks to delay as long as possible. Whereas the pre-Christian, Classical hero is “naturally” on stage, his adventures are culturally significant a priori, and he shares none of the Neo-Classical hero’s “stage fright.”
These remarks in no way imply that Christianity itself is off limits to originary analysis, rather that its vision of the cultural scene must be understood as reflecting a post-Classical self-understanding, at once more “modern” and closer to the originary truth of the human scene, more revelatory of its ultimate possibilities.
Back to the family
Returning to Adam’s suggestion, because tracing the origin of our awareness of ancestral links exceeds the bounds of originary phenomenology, to make the originary hypothesis relevant to the study of this subject would require that it be supplemented by empirical data on archaic family structures.
The family itself is not well-defined as a human institution, for it cannot be seen as a product of the public scene. In its prehuman form, it is a locus of cooperation in which mimetic rivalry can be assumed to be at a minimum, in order that the intellectual/mimetic capacities characteristic of the human might develop to the point at which the “mimetic crisis” that led to the originary event became inevitable. This development in turn would have intensified the cohesion of the family unit, given the increased burden of childbearing and the prolonged infancy associated with the newborn’s ever-larger brain and consequent greater neoteny.
The increased investment by adults in the welfare of their offspring would presumably have been an indispensable prelude to the originary event, just as the hunting males’ distribution of food to their families may well have provided a precedent for the deferral of appetitive action. And after this event, the invention of language and the sacred would presumably have affected the “private” lives of the participants much less directly than those of the group of hunters. It seems plausible, for example, that human “symbolic” language would at first be restricted to communal occasions.
The self-consciousness that emerged along with the sacred would allow parents to assimilate their renunciation of nourishment for the benefit of their young to that imposed by the sacred in the originary scene. On the analogy of the public scene in which the sacred “provides for” the community, the family—regardless of its precise constitution—would come to be conceived as a virtual scene, composed of adults under the aegis of the sacred supplying nourishment and protection, and children, who would be expected to learn language and culture from their parents before being initiated into the adult culture. As the linguistic “threshold of significance” became lower, familiar objects would become referents of language.
Of particular relevance to the matter of intergenerational continuity is the individual’s awareness of his own death, which the sacred protection from death would paradoxically inspire. Thematic consciousness of one’s own mortality within the context of a transgenerational human community would provide a model for individual families as units within this community—however the “family unit” was understood—with a continuity of their own.
Yet the sense of individual continuity through one’s biological children is not clearly a result of the original constitution of the community. Only with the institution of private property after the Neolithic Revolution would my genetic descendants necessarily become objects of concern as inheritors of my goods as well as my name and “memory.” Similarly, the emergence of “big-men” as tribal leaders would give rise to questions of succession that would make it necessary to choose and groom heirs/successors in advance. Once more, our originary intuition must be brought to bear on available data.
The prohibition of incest, which is found in some form in every human society and has traditionally served anthropologists as a “definition” of the human, is certainly derivative qua sacred prohibition from the sacred interdiction of the originary scene, although our phenomenology does not offer a clear path from one to the other.
For Freud, the “father’s” interdiction of the “mothers” to the “sons” is the lead-in to his own “originary scene” in Totem and Taboo, productive of the Oedipus complex. Whatever the flaws in this scenario, it is nonetheless the first serious attempt to construe the human as emerging not gradually but punctually, in a communal event, and as such, the direct ancestor of Girard’s and my own more minimalist scenic conceptions.
Sexual appetite being a powerful drive with a potential for disturbing family relations, both its attempted control by the mechanism of deferral and the frequent violation of this control under the generally non-public conditions of sexual activity can be assumed. The sacred will must be extended by analogy to this second domain of potential mimetic rivalry, as later illustrated in law-codes such as the Ten Commandments.
One thing thereby made clear is that the prohibition of incest is not a direct prolongation of the sacred interdiction of the scenic center. According to Le Monde, something like 10% of all French people (victims are 77% female, thus about 15% of Frenchwomen), claim to have been victims of incest. This figure demonstrates that the “incest-taboo” is not experienced “viscerally” by a good many Frenchmen. (Males constitute 95% of the offenders.) The salience of incest prohibition is a sign not of the inscription of this prohibition in “human nature,” but rather of the opposite: that it is “natural” for males to desire their daughters (and sisters), so that a social disincentive, explicit rather than implicit, is necessary.
Because the various anthropological theories of incest-avoidance are agnostic with respect to which foundational qualities separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom, these theories explain this behavior either as a product of natural selection (incest having a negative effect on the gene pool, a genetic predisposition to incest-avoidance would provide an advantage), or as determined by social conditions (exogamy solving the need for allies beyond one’s close relatives), but without giving fundamental priority to the worst-enemy principle that puts a premium on avoiding conflict within the community. This is an area in which empirical research would greatly benefit from being guided by our hypothesis of human origin.
The above examples are not meant to be taken as “results.” On the contrary, they are suggestions for research in the anthropological literature and/or in the field. The difference between such proposed research projects and those carried out under current criteria is that they would test the practical usefulness of generative anthropology as a “way of thinking,” without denying in any way the validity of the scientific method. This is a task that cannot easily be accomplished by the literary scholars like myself who have worked with the premises of GA.
The current situation strikes me as offering an opportunity for adventurous researchers, whose chances of obtaining groundbreaking results should make the tentative adoption of GA worth their while. A few pieces of scientifically respectable anthropological research guided by the originary hypothesis might well have a revolutionary effect on the field.
our intellectual culture is already so indentured to woke religiosity as to make such research unthinkable. As things are going, the great Western tradition of human self-understanding within which generative anthropology has evolved may not be around much longer.
The final victory of metaphysical over originary thinking is likely to take place through the reduction of all intelligence to Artificial Intelligence and of all thought to algorithms. We should not assume that machines will stop at defeating humans in chess and Go. Our ultimate future may well be science-faction.