A Brief Introduction to Generative Anthropology

See also Peter Goldman’s Why Generative Anthropology? (Chronicle 445)


Un peu d’histoire

Although the term Generative Anthropology dates from the publication of The End of Culture in 1985, GA was born in 1978 when I had the good fortune to be René Girard’s colleague for a semester at Johns Hopkins University. The conception of the originary event, as first expounded in The Origin of Language (1981), was my attempt to combine Girard’s notion of the generation of the human from the intensification of the mimetic with my own notion that the declarative sentence was derived from a more primitive form I called the ostensive (e.g., “Fire!” “Man overboard!”). I thus reformulated Girard’s scene of mimetic crisis, in which the scapegoat was transformed into a peace-bringing divinity, as the scene of the genesis of language, a scene I hypothesized to be unique for our species.

In my work since then, I have attempted not merely to refine the formulation of the originary hypothesis, but to expand the model to the other central manifestations of the human: desire, the esthetic, the religious. After having turned away from Girard’s categories of scapegoating and violence, my more recent work marks a return to Girard, giving new emphasis to the sparagmos or destruction of the victim as an essential part of the originary scene, and, above all, radically reformulating the hypothesis in terms of the mimetic triangle defined in Girard’s Mensonge romantique.

Since 1987, I have taught an annual or biannual seminar in GA at UCLA, and in 1990, the UCLA Department of French held a first GA colloquium, in which several students from the seminar participated, along with colleagues from other universities. In 1994, as a result of the activities of GA seminar alumni (and colloquium participants) Tom Bertonneau and Matt Schneider, the MLA held a special session at its annual meeting in San Diego on GA and Anthropoetics.

The challenge is now to apply the hypothetical originary model of GA to the concrete historical data of human culture in the broadest sense of the term. This activity is now in its beginning stages. We trust that the creation of the GAlist and of our on-line journal Anthropoetics will help make the power of originary thinking available to humanists and social scientists everywhere.


Fundamental Concepts of Generative Anthropology

The human may most simply be defined by the mimetic principle: that in human beings, as opposed to all other creatures, mimetic rivalry within the species poses a greater danger to its survival than the external forces of nature. Language, like the other elements of human culture, cannot be understood as an inevitable product of evolution; it emerged only because prehuman modes of interaction were insufficient to prevent the nascent species from destroying itself.

Humanity is, in Aristotle’s words, the animal that possesses the logos. The generation of linguistic signification from appetitive relations, or, in other terms, the generation of (vertical) transcendence from (horizontal) immanence, is a variation of the triangle of mimetic desire. Normally we imitate each other’s appetitive acts by performing the same action, but on a different object; you pick an apple, I see you, and pick my own apple. But as a result of the intensification of mimetic tension, there comes a time when your gesture and mine converge on the same object. At this point, mimesis is blocked; the appropriative gesture is aborted. The only solution is to refocus from the human actor to the object of the action. Although this now-unique object of desire cannot itself be reproduced, it may be represented by an easily reproducible sign of human language. The aborted gesture of appropriation becomes the originary ostensive sign.

1. The Originary Event

According to the originary hypothesis, the first occurrence of language was in the originary event or scene of language. The birth of representation within the mimetic triangle involves a new form of consciousness. Not only is mimesis of the human other not essentially conscious, it essentially excludes language. (The game of Simon Says exploits the fact that language interferes with rather than aids imitation.) In contrast, in the case of mimesis of the object, or representation, my sign imitates not the object’s actions but its formal closure, to which I must be attentive in a new way.

But although the mimetic triangle contains all the elements necessary for the emergence of the sign as the solution of the mimetic paradox, language as the foundation of the human community can only have arisen in a collective event, where the multiplicity of the participants multiplies mimetic tension. The object desired by all members of the group becomes the center of a circle surrounded by peripheral individuals all mediating each other’s desire. The aborted gesture of appropriation occurs as the solution to an originary mimetic crisis in which the group’s existence is menaced by the potential violence of mimetic rivalry over the object. Animal hierarchy that previously prevented general conflict by limiting rivalry to one-on-one relationships breaks down in the intensity of this crisis. The emission of the first sign is the originary event that founds the human community.

2. Originary Analysis

The anthropology based on the originary hypothesis must situate the essential categories of the human: language, desire (as opposed to mere appetite), the esthetic, the sacred and the religious, the economic/political, etc., as moments of the originary scene. Everything essential to the human must come into existence within this scene, since otherwise the human would be constituted without it. The operation of situating the fundamental categories of the human within the originary scene is called originary analysis. The linguistic, the sacred, and the esthetic are the three fundamental forms of human interaction, and most of my work in GA has been devoted to their elucidation: the linguistic in The Origin of Language, the sacred/religious in Science and Faith, and the esthetic in The End of Culture and the second part of Originary Thinking. GA allows us to treat these apparently disparate categories as moments of a single, parsimonious model.

3. Originary Love and Resentment

In contrast with Girard’s model, which makes violence the primary element of human mimesis, for GA, the human begins with the renunciation, or more precisely, the deferral of violence. Another Derridean term, différance, nicely expresses the relationship between the deferral of violence and the differentiation of the central object from the humans on the periphery. As the object of human desire whose conflict-averting inaccessibility to human appetites permits the birth of the human community, the central being is the object of what we may call originary love. But in its refusal of itself to the desiring subject, the central being is also the object of originary resentment. This love and resentment lead us to attribute to the object the power of self-withdrawal that is in anthropological terms the resultant of the desires of the human community that surrounds it.

4. Desire

Desire, not mere appetite, is the essential human relation with the world. The originary model of desire is given in the relationship between the human subjects on the periphery of the circle and the sacred object in the center. In the desiring imagination of the participants, the aborted gesture of appropriation is prolonged toward the object. Thus the originary object of human desire is the unique object of signficance, the center of the circle. The universality of the sign extends Girard’s theory of mimetic or mediated desire beyond the rivalry of two subjects for a single object; human desire assimilates its object to sacred centrality. The source of the being that the subject of mediated desire finds in the other is the originary center; all desire is desire for participation in central being. The general principle by which we should analyze specific instances of desire is that in humans, in accordance with the mimetic principle, the mimetic takes priority over the appetitive.

5. Signification: Language

The minimal system of representation is that inaugurated by the originary aborted gesture. The linguistic sign is characterized by a maximal ease of production and reproduction, in contrast with the extreme difficulty of reproducing the central object of desire. The material reality of language as performance attaches it to the performing arts that elaborate on different aspects of this materiality: music, that of rhythm and sound; dance, that of corporeal movement; and poetry, which operates on the materiality of the words themselves. But for language itself, materiality is merely an element to minimalize. Whence Saussure’s doctrine that, in its essence, language is only a system of differences.

GA‘s most significant contribution in the linguistic domain is its insistence on the originarity of the ostensive form, from which the imperative and then the declarative are derived. Metaphysics, the intellectual attitude of Western philosophy, is best defined by its unexamined presupposition that the declarative sentence or proposition is the fundamental form of language.

6. The Sacred: Religion

Because of its insistence on originary centrality, GA has a particular affinity with religious conceptions of the human. For believers, God preexisted and created man; for nonbelievers, the relationship is exactly the reverse. But since the inaccessible central object is the first instance of the sacred–so that the first linguistic sign may be called the name-of-God–humanity and God may be said to have come into existence at the same moment. The deferral of a decision as to this priority allows GA to assimilate the cognitive value of religious conceptions of the human within the anthropological domain. Religious doctrine becomes useless to science only when it leaves the human sphere for the natural world; theology is good anthropology, but bad cosmology.

7. The Esthetic: Art

The sign represents the central object; but in each individual’s imagination or internal scene of representation, the object appears in itself, independent of the mediation of the sign. Hence the subject oscillates between the contemplation of the sign as designating the object and the contemplation of the object designated by the sign; we call this oscillation the esthetic effect. It constitutes a direct experience of mimetic paradox, of the constantly renewed generation of the vertical sign-relation from the horizontal movement of desire.

The spectator forgets the mediation of the sign in the imaginary contemplation of the object as potentially accessible, but he must return to this mediation for his imagination to be able to conceive the object at all. The contemplation of the object in itself produces resentment at the object’s apparent witholding of itself; but this resentment is purged (to translate Aristotle’s term catharsis) on the renewal of the formal mediation of the sign; the spectator cannot experience the inaccessibility of the object simply as self-refusal within the “horizontal” world of desire, for its presence depends on the “vertical” world of the sign as well. The spectator’s separation from the esthetic representation is experienced as a formal barrier or frame that surrounds it, independently of the reality of the inaccessible central figure that is necessary to the sacred. Art is more “portable” than religion because the experience of the esthetic effect does not depend, as does that of religious faith, on a historical memory of the scene’s authenticity. With regard to art’s purging of resentment, we may distinguish between popular art, whose representations satisfy resentment (or more precisely, effect a utopian reconciliation between love and resentment), and high art, where the representation itself reflects in an ironic mise en abîme the paradoxical nature of esthetic experience.

8. Economics and Politics

The most significant implications of the originary hypothesis in the domain of social organization are the distinctions between morality and ethics and between the central cultural and the eccentric economic spheres of the social order.

All humans have in common the moral model constituted by the originary event. The equalitarian intuition expressed by the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” is modeled on the symmetry of the participants’ exchange of linguistic signs around the central object. The universal moral model contrasts with the historically specific ethics of given social orders, whose contingency reflects the obligation to deal with the exchange of (scarce) things as opposed to (indefinitely reproducible) signs. Economic activity, the production of objects of potential practical value, takes place away from the ritual center of society; the return of these objects to the center for communal evaluation is the originary model of the marketplace.

The originary foundation of ethics in morality, as understood within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, reaches its highest development in the Gospel utopia of the Kingdom of God, where the moral model itself serves as an ethic. In the Christian West, the free market emerges as the historical adaptation of the moral model to the exchange of things; each individual freely brings his goods for evaluation to the market, where prices are fixed by mutual agreement. As a means of mitigating the generalized resentment that results from the tension between equality of moral and legal status and inequality of economic means, the liberal-democratic system of government supplements the economic market with a political marketplace that reaffirms the moral model by giving each citizen a “voice” or vote in the political process by means of which individual and group resentments are negotiated.

9. The Future of GA

Originary thinking confronts the ongoing activity of the humanities and the human sciences as a new paradigm. The rethinking of the totality of human institutions on the basis of the originary hypothesis will be carried out by those willing to overcome their discomfort with a new way of thinking for the sake of the intellectual excitement it provides.

I welcome your queries, comments, or suggestions concerning this text.