The fundamental human paradox is that language is timeless but its users are not. The only way out of this dilemma–one that will bear witness neither to our immortality nor to our simple materiality–is to postulate that the users of language must be mortal, that this very mortality is at the origin of language. Our minimal article of faith must be the anthropological nature of signification. God can make us immortal with respect to human violence because this violence, which makes us aware of our mortality in the first place, is subject to the deferral of the scene of representation. Yet mortality, on our awareness of which culture depends, is a biological reality from which our sacred cannot permanently protect us.
We go beyond Durkheim’s conception of the sacred as a substitute for the human collectivity when we attribute to it the primary function of deferring human violence and the death that we fear from it. While religion commemorates the ostensive designation that constitutes the scene of origin, metaphysics inhabits the decontextualized scene of the declarative proposition, guaranteed by the deferral of violence that this designation provides. The ahistoricity of the declarative, which makes it capable of representing history and our personal relationship to death, defers at the same time its revelation of the historicity of its origin. The metaphysical era is the time of this deferral. To attempt to emerge from this era by situating the abstract scene of metaphysics within human history is, in fact, to formulate an originary hypothesis.
When metaphysics comes to reflect on its own presuppositions, a process that reaches its most rigorous level in Kant, it discovers the paradox inherent in the idea of a mortal user of signs. Kant’s “antinomies” all express this paradox. Thus, Kant argues, for us to accept rationally the universal moral law of reciprocity, we must posit a God to guarantee the law and an eternity in which to “perfect ourselves” so as to live it as our own nature. These transcendental exigencies, which no empirical evidence can justify, are equivalent in Kant’s own minimal anthropology to the minimal empirical exigencies of the originary scene. The divine guarantee is that of the deferral of mimetic conflict, the soul’s immortality, that of the representations that commemorate this deferral.
The link between the moral and the sacred is a priori, but the sacred is not a merely speculative means of reconciling the individual with the universal; it is what subsists and recalls to us the originary experience of this, necessarily provisional, historical reconciliation. Nor is there a moment at eternity when this reconciliation might transcend its status as deferral and be liberated from the contingency of time. If we can nonetheless comprehend and enunciate the moral law, it is because the representational form in which this enunciation is accomplished is generated in response to this very contingency. The existence of God and the immortality of the soul appear within Kant’s system, and within metaphysics in general, as aporias because they function paradoxically to define the genesis of the system itself.
Yet to accept that all meaning, including that of my own death, is the product of the common human need to defer human violence only deepens the paradox. The existentialist response, that of Kierkegaard to Hegel, or Dostoevsky to the Crystal Palace, is that, whatever its source, my language is my own because my death is my own; because my life is limited by its own temporal horizon, neither ontology nor anthropology can help me decide how to live it.
Our intellectual enterprises that go beyond the needs of the moment fall into two domains, the cognitive and the spiritual, corresponding roughly to those of Kant’s Verstand and Vernunft.
Cognitive activity is in principle cumulative and unbounded, with practical implications likewise unlimited. Although this activity may be the basis of a career whose rhythms respect our anticipated life span, empirical knowledge and the methods by which we acquire it have no direct relationship to our mortality. Scientific progress has no direct correlation with the temporality of human life, nor is the inevitable supersession of the models we construct analogous to biological decay.
In contrast, the spiritual search for “wisdom” or “enlightenment” is a personal enterprise that has meaning only within my own life. Each person seeks a modus vivendi for his mortal self in the world of mimetic desire; the external forms of public ritual are powerful stimulants to spirituality, but cannot substitute for it. Although it may take a lifetime to acquire it, spiritual knowledge is not cumulative; its acquisition is a conversion rather than a process of accumulation. Heidegger’s notion of resoluteness (Erschlossenheit) as the acceptance of being-toward-death is the most coherent modern formulation of this spiritual goal.
Where does originary thinking stand with respect to this dichotomy? Irrespective of its cognitive consequences, the assertion of the minimalist a priori that is the germ of originary thinking is more a punctual act than a moment of an ongoing process independent of our temporal existence. Cognitive activity comes closest to spiritual experience in the moments of intuition in which new intellectual paradigms are created. Although the paradigm of the originary hypothesis proceeds from such a moment, its minimality makes it ill-suited to the establishment of a research program; in Thomas Kuhn’s terminology, no “normal science” can be conducted under its aegis. Nor is the originary hypothesis a likely source of spiritual enlightenment; a minimalist understanding of the human has no immediate existential implications. The activity of originary thinking falls between the cognitive and the spiritual, just as the terrain of generative anthropology falls between those of social science and religion.
In a recent personal communication, Jose Carrubba suggests that these anthropological “truths” are in the first place expressions of my personal will to power. Aware that originary thinking demands a resoluteness whose very universality–the originary scene is the same for all–makes it incapable of providing an example for others, Carrubba recommends a Nietzschean interpretation of the originary scene as that of each human being’s self-construction. But Nietzsche’s anthropology has already been tried, with monstrous consequences. To define one’s ontology–and one’s ethics–as that of an “artist” is to condemn it to either idleness or inhumanity. On the contrary, to dare to think the fundamental question of the human as already solved, and as solvable only under the condition of believing it thus, with a faith limited to this proposition alone, is to express a credo that one can neither simply advise others to reproduce nor claim as a unique “artistic” gesture. The steadfastness of this conviction makes me spiritually ready for death yet prepared to pursue indefinitely the cognitive task of elucidating the implications of this minimalist conception of the human.
In the context of a global community that must henceforth be taken as a single unit, to define the human by the deferral of violence through the exchange of representations is to accept as one’s goal the achievement of what Kant called perpetual peace: a world from which large-scale manifestations of violence have been “perpetually” excluded. The most powerful ecological reminders of our finitude pale before the human reminder inflicted on us on September 11, and on who knows how many more September 11ths. The pursuit of the infinite enterprise of human self-knowledge depends in our era, for the first time since the origin of humanity, on the short-term success of humanity’s spiritual enterprise. The best use for anyone’s finitude is in the attempt to realize, each in his own sphere, the truth of human reciprocity that has guaranteed until now the immortality of the human race.