In a recent email exchange, Matthew Taylor suggests that GA’s lack of currency in today’s intellectual market may be less a sign of its intrinsic incompatibility with our victimary Weltgeist than the result of a failure to link it on a “gut level” to the everyday experience of the scenic. These passages give the gist of Matthew’s idea:

If GA could be articulated more at the “gut level” (undoubtedly the attraction of Mimetic Theory is that it can at least appear to appeal directly to experience and observation) I suspect it could be more widely disseminated.

[W]hat would a “gut level” GA look like, exactly?  I’m not sure, but think it would appeal somewhat more directly to the qualia of conscious awareness.  We experience language in a certain way. We cannot NOT have an internal scene created when we hear or read or use language. We cannot . . . think, or feel, or communicate, or desire without calling up some kind of scene.  From there, people can be asked [to] think about the nature and texture of that scene, and from there back to the essentials of the first scene.  Likewise, center/periphery and resentment issues come up all the time in daily experience. GA would be thought astonishing (rather than fascinating but dauntingly arcane) when people realized that it describes and illuminates the way they are actually experiencing life and conscious awareness.

It seems that if GA could be shown to make [people] understand themselves and their surroundings markedly better in a concrete way, it would automatically be appreciated.

This exchange coincided with a let-down occasioned by reading in my seminar some chapters of Originary Thinking, which had aged more than I had realized since the book’s appearance in 1993. At that time, I was still addressing “the social sciences” in programmatic terms and, more than I had remembered, in the late metaphysical vocabulary of existentialist philosophy. Conversely, the book lacks reference to Durkheim and Mauss, whose relevance to GA I discovered only later in the 1990s.

Yet ideas take time to develop, and over the past decades, GA has been moving in the right direction, exploring its anthropological roots and developing its own vocabulary. It suffices to stick with the theme of the recent series of Chronicles to find the point of contact between GA and the gut level of human experience.

I have been fascinated by paradoxes ever since I can remember. I have already mentioned in Chronicle 389 the impression made on me some forty years ago by Watzlawick’s concept of pragmatic paradox. The titles of three of my books contain the word “paradox.”

In the previous Chronicle I developed some consequences of the fundamental paradox of signification, which should really be called the fundamental paradox of representation, since all forms of representation have the same underlying structure. The more radically we explicate this structure, the more we free it from the metaphysical framework that takes language for granted, the closer we come to an understanding of the specifically human use of language and other forms of representation.

By definition, paradox cannot be “thought.” This is usually taken as a sign that paradoxes are small cracks in an otherwise consistent system of thought. Bertrand Russell was able to eliminate paradox from set theory by proposing levels or “types” of discourse/sets each of which could refer to/include only types lower down the list, but none of which could refer to/include discourses/sets of its own type. No doubt the enunciation of the theory cannot itself be given a type, but the addition of this metatheoretical postulate seems a small price to pay for preserving set theory from paradoxes of the Barber variety.

In the preceding Chronicle I showed that the terms of the Barber Paradox can be given an unproblematic expression in the real world; they are paradoxical only in the sign-world, where temporal causality has been eliminated. We can apply the same argument to the logically homologous set-theory paradox: the set S includes a given set x if and only if x does not include itself, or in formal terms, x € S <=> x ~€ x. The paradox arises when we set x to S. Starting on the left side of the equivalence, S is a member of itself. But if the set S includes itself on the left side, then it doesn’t have to include itself on the right side. Think of “including” like… shaving. Or, conversely, if it’s not included in itself on the right side, then it has the right to join itself on the left. This reasoning sounds stranger than the very same reasoning in the case of the barber, because the latter’s activities apparently refer to the “real world” whereas the operations of set theory do not. But that is only another way of saying that the world of metaphysics, of which logic is a part, was created in order to avoid the originary paradox of signification.

From the standpoint of the originary hypothesis, the originary singularity in which the sign is created necessarily has a paradoxical status within the system of signs. Let us return to our fundamental paradox: (S -> O) -> (S -> (S-> O)). Like the Barber Paradox, there is nothing paradoxical about this relationship if it is considered as a temporal progression: the sign represents its object, and as a result the object is transformed into the object-of-a-sign. We are appetitively attracted to the central object; we renounce appropriation of it and represent it by a sign; insofar as it is represented by a sign rather than sought as an object of appropriation, the object is experienced as sacred; consequently, the sign represents the object-as-sacred. It is only when we attempt to condense this temporal process into the atemporal meaning of the sign, which Saussure called the signifié, that we encounter a paradoxical, unstable, or simply oscillatory condition, in which the sacred is undecidably the referent and the signified, the cause and the product of signification. Historically this paradox has tended to be resolved by the postulation of a sacred prior to the originary scene (God created man), but there may well have always been skeptics for whom the opposite is true (man created God), and both can find support in the scene itself; was the sacred an invention or a revelation? Whence what I think is the most rigorous definition of God: as the being that is undecidably the referent and the signified of the name-of-God, both demonstrating and begging the question of the “ontological proof.”

All other paradoxes derive from the fundamental paradox, which is not a logical statement but, as we have seen, what logic exists to avoid. Why indeed do we assume that words have fixed meanings, or that the truth of propositions is independent of the time in which they are enunciated? No doubt because language works better that way, but the ontology of language is not independent of the humans who think with it. Every use of language or other forms of representation is susceptible of reminding us of the origin of representation, of the passage from the horizontal universe of appetite to the human world containing the transcendent second dimension of representation. To think this passage in terms of constituted language, which is the only way in which we can, strictly speaking, think it, necessarily encounters the fundamental paradox.

This is a question that can only be talked around, not faced directly through a logical exposition. It is no more “supernatural” than Gödel’s theorem or Russell’s Theory of Types or the good old Barber Paradox itself. What distinguishes the originary hypothesis is that it offers a way of imagining how representation with its paradoxical structure might have come into being; while acknowledging its debts to Freud and of course Girard, it is the first attempt to construct such a scenario.

Formal statements of the originary paradox do not produce gut-level effects, but they can help us to understand the effects the experience of this paradox does produce, whether they occur, as most frequently, in the contemplation of a work of art, in the rarer moments of religious conversion, or in an experience familiar to most of us, that of falling in love.

Art: One experience that certainly generates a gut reaction is that of the esthetic, which I defined as a pragmatic paradox as soon as I became aware of the concept. Today, I would put this in much more fundamental terms: the esthetic is the experience of a given representation as originary paradox. The frisson (often accompanied by tears) that attends a successful esthetic experience is the mark left by this paradox on our psyche. In the artwork we experience the birth of meaning from nothingness, which could not produce meaning had it not already existed.

Religion: The originary hypothesis is a good place for believers and non-believers to get together, a minimal “belief” the sharing of which allows members of either group to appreciate the other’s position. As opposed to deism, which posits some form of minimal divinity without offering an explanation of its provenance, the originary hypothesis postulates no beings outside the originary scene itself. To meet on the common ground of GA, believers must agree to understand their belief as a mark of historical respect to the humans to whom a given explanation of human origin was revealed, however we understand the notion of revelation; the non-believers, having refused to accept historical documentation that is incompatible with Ockham’s razor, must accept their responsibility to explain human origins at least as well as the first group. In the past, belief was a social, “Durkheimian” phenomenon; today, in countries where religious doctrine can no longer be enforced, atheists are happy to tell believers that their creation stories are “myths,” but unwilling to accept responsibility for conceiving a hypothetical originary event of their own.

Love: It is no accident that “I love you,” a version of which I believe exists in every language, is an exemplary illustration of the paradox of signification. On the surface, the sentence is a simple constative; unlike performatives such as “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I promise to pay you back next week,” saying “I love you” should do nothing. Yet we all know that “I love you” is indeed a promise, in principle of lifelong fidelity. Why then do we not say, “I promise to love you” or “I promise to care for you”? Such expressions, we immediately realize, would be offensive, because they would make of my love a purely voluntary engagement, a contract that I undertake, so that my promise would bind me in the same way as my promise to pay back the money. This is not the sign of a truly originary, sacred experience. “I love you” means that I recognize the love I feel and thereby convert it into the promise it always already implicitly was, just as our originary designation of the sacred central object conveys explicitly to each other the meaning of sacrality that the object always already possessed.

If anything hits us at gut level, it is love! Love is the dominant theme of these Chronicles, and the expression “I love you” was the subject of one of the earliest. The next time you say “I love you,” think of the originary hypothesis, and Matthew’s best hopes for GA will be fulfilled.