Ten years ago, I wrote a Chronicle about being turned down for a promotion at UCLA I thought I had every reason to expect. Ten years later, this promotion (to the obscurely honorific title of “Professor Above Scale”) has been approved, not without irony, retroactively, a month after it took effect. This removal of a long-familiar source of resentment so late in my career leads me to reflect on the relationship to GA of the particular flavor of resentment I have called Bronx Romanticism.
The Bronx Romantic lives the “double life” characteristic of all romantics, inhabiting an alternate universe that intersects with the real world only in the trivial contingencies of the everyday. In the latter, he may function well enough, but his true essence remains invisible; his real achievements remain hidden from the public eye. For the Bronx Romantic, to attain fame in the real world is proof of mediocrity; to those whose accomplishments meet with worldly success, he feels both infinitely superior in his own terms and incommensurably inferior in theirs.
It’s easy to be a Bronx Romantic as a high school student, less so as a sexagenarian professor. Yet I think I have largely succeeded, if that is the right word, at remaining in this adolescent category at an age when most people are already retired. Alongside my real-world activities, which include most of my duties at UCLA, I have kept up a Bronx Romantic sub-universe where I edit Anthropoetics and write these Chronicles. A few friends have become regular visitors to this little world, and for the past couple of summers and at least a couple more, they have been organizing and participating in “GA Summer Conferences” (next year’s is in Ottawa in June).
I described how I thought Bronx Romanticism was reflected in GA in an essay in Adam Katz’s book. A more interesting question is that of the relationship between Bronx Romanticism and GA’s status as a public enterprise. Is GA truly a necessary component of human self-understanding? Is its under-the-radar existence a sign of ultimate fecundity? If GA (or some close equivalent) is fated to become part of the world’s intellectual heritage, should we say that it could only have mutated into a publicly defensible mode of thought because it began, defenseless, in private?
Bronx Romantics are very sensitive to the contradiction between the center of public attention, whose inhabitants excel, really or apparently, in some specialized endeavor, and the originary center of meaning, which we inhabit only as children before starting out along one of life’s specialized paths. Our nostalgia for this center corresponds in our personal history to the post-Revolutionary romantic’s nostalgia for the cultural solidarity of traditional society, always greater in retrospect than reality. In advancing the originary hypothesis, the Bronx Romantic audaciously asserts that prolonged adolescent amateurism brings him closer to human reality than the professional study of genetics or neurology, of contemporary tribes or distant ancestors. GA’s conjectures have generally proved true rather than false, although this has not redounded to its credit, since what I call confirmations are presented as contingent discoveries rather than corollaries of the originary hypothesis. Nonetheless, this reassuring empirical confirmation is eminently predictable once one accepts the principle that the key to understanding the human is the hypothetical reconstruction of the scenic origin of the transcendent realm of representation. As I pointed out in The Scenic Imagination, scientists’ attempts to conceptualize this transition are necessarily inadequate, since (with rare exceptions) they are not persuaded that anything really new is involved, let alone that human origin must be conceived as a singularity or event. That they keep at it nevertheless shows that the gradualist accounts of the origin of language that were taken for granted in the previous generation are no longer felt to be adequate.
The genius of GA is to avoid all debates, both those within the scientific community over the origin of the human or of language, and those between science and religion over what is really the same issue, although presented in different terms: whether the human can be understood without reference to a prior source of transcendence. This avoidance of polemic preserves GA’s Bronx Romantic character as a “new way of thinking” by refusing to contaminate it with the rhetoric of tactical operations. No doubt this choice has until now largely confined GA to the world of literary-critical scholars, but this betokens its true generality. Departments of literature, however outmoded the term itself has become, remain the privileged homelands of the anthropological universal, the natural terrain for the Bronx Romantic.
Given that GA positions itself between science and religious belief as a minimal faith and the foundation of a new conception of human science, how does GA facilitate dialogue, whether between science and faith or between the different religions? If we stipulate that both sides are willing to accept GA as a basis for discussion, what kind of discussion would this permit?
For the scientist, the originary hypothesis supplies a naturalistic explanation of religion’s affirmations of transcendence—an explanation superior to that of evolutionary psychology, which gives a posteriori reasons for religion’s evolutionary adaptability without being able to explain either its origin or that of language, or to draw a coherent connection between the two. Thus if we take the originary hypothesis as true, we no longer require a “supernatural” or inherently transcendental source for the transcendental realm of representation.
The believer might counter that the meaning of the originary sign is not the central object, since the sign remains after the sparagmos in which the object is destroyed and ingested. If the sign is the name-of-God, then its persistence after the event is proof of God’s subsistence independently of any specific worldly incarnation. The scientist might reply that God is the sign’s “signified” or meaning, a concept rather than a concrete referent. But the believer can answer that the signified/referent distinction presupposes the existence of a transcendent world of “Ideas” that referential objects merely exemplify or “imitate,” like shadows on the walls of a cave. This distinction belongs to the world of metaphysics, where the declarative proposition is taken for granted as the fundamental linguistic form, as opposed to the revelatory world of the originary, ostensive sign that must have preceded it.
In terms of originary linguistics, God is the meaning of the originary sign, concerning which no distinction between referent and signified is possible. This is the originary, anthropological sense of the “ontological proof,” customarily expressed in terms of God’s “perfection.” To include existence as a predicate within God’s perfection—an inclusion rejected by Kant, the greatest of metaphysicians—is a roundabout way of acknowledging that the originary sign, while designating—pointing at—a real object, can only have meant, in order for it to subsist as a sign, the subsistent sacred being of which that object was merely a temporary embodiment. The scientist will point out that GA’s own explanation of the sacred as the quality of deferring the potentially conflictive desires of the members of the group does not depend on supernatural intervention. But the believer will respond that the passage from shared fear and appetite to the paralysis of the “aborted gesture of appropriation” cannot suffice to transform this gesture into a sign. The originary sign is no longer an “indexical” reaction to a worldly stimulus, but nor can it, like a word of mature language, simply mean “the category of such things”—for example, mammoth if the originary object was a mammoth. Such a categorical “meaning” might inhere in an indexical signal such as those that have brought fame to the vervet monkey, but semiotic reference, the reference of a sign that is to retain its meaning as an object of thought in the absence of and/or after the destruction of its referent, cannot be reduced to that of an indexical automatism. No mere thing can serve as the origin of meaning.
Max Müller thought that language began with the sun because the sun is always present to all; but precisely, this presence is incapable of provoking a crisis. The precipitating cause of the founding crisis must be a temporary, accessible reality, one that excites an appetite potentially capable of fulfillment. Yet the “signified” or meaning of the sign can only be a permanent reality. Sun worshipers are believers in divine transcendence, but they can pass from the ephemerality of the originary referent to the permanence of the sun only because the transcendental meaning the two objects have in common subsists outside either of them, in the Being whose signified is its referent.
One can imagine a prolongation of such an argument entering into the details of neurological evolution, offered by the scientist as an explanation for the phenomenon of representation, with the believer replying that the neurological substrate of language and other cultural realities is merely the material correlate of representation, not its “explanation.” Within this discussion, the originary hypothesis continually reminds both parties, particularly the scientist, of the ontological divide between the transcendence of human representation and the “horizontal” forms of communication that precede it, a separation figured in human terms as the tension between the periphery and the center of a scene, the locus of the first human event. The scientist’s reduction of the divine to a worldly hypothesis and the believer’s critique of the hypothetical worldly event as incapable of generating transcendence on its own open onto an endless dialectic that can potentially integrate within itself the entire substance of human history without loss of information through reduction or dismissal of evidence.
Secularist participants in such a dialogue must have the humility to acknowledge that language and culture, however “adaptive,” cannot be explained as simple products of genetic mutation and selection. For their part, religious participants must “bracket” what in their belief exceeds the transcendental anthropology of the originary hypothesis. Neither task should be a burden to any but those who value the letter of belief over its spirit. If sacred Being, as the referent indistinguishable from its signified, is arguably the minimal core of all notions of God, it is one in relation to which “belief” is undecidably passive and active, supernatural and natural. Ultimately, human science and religion are but two names for generative anthropology. While awaiting the world’s acknowledgement of this fact, the Bronx Romantic isn’t holding his breath.