The week before Labor Day, the world learned from the Japanese toy company Sanrio that the ubiquitous Hello Kitty is “really” not a cat but a little girl named Kitty White. This news elicited many indignant and/or mournful reactions among fans who have always thought of HK as a kitten.
As someone who never attends a GASC without his faithful hedgehog Henri, I thought this minor controversy offered a good opportunity to take a vacation from ISIS and the victimocracy to say a few words about the little (but sometimes fairly large) creatures commercially known as plush or stuffed animals but that in our family we just call bears. These little friends are more popular with the young than among persons in my age group, but when my wife taught French with our little bear Marcel Ourson and a few of his pals (whom students find easier to talk to than people, being less critical of linguistic errors), she discovered that almost all her students, young and old, had at least a bear or two at home. And we have all seen that in recent years, when a spontaneous memorial is created to commemorate an accidental death, as most famously with Princess Di in Paris, or for example when ten people were killed by a runaway car at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market a few years ago, many people leave bears rather than or along with flowers and notes.
I hope my ideas on Generative Anthropology will not be taken less seriously if I admit that two Hello Kitties are looking at me as I write, along with a pair of pigs, a couple of armadillos, a baby echidna, an alligator, and of course a few hedgehogs. I say “looking” because, as an evolutionary psychologist would probably tell you, we tend to react to anything that has what seems like two eyes as if it were a face. Whatever else a bear has or doesn’t have (we have a couple of small hedgehogs that lack any distinguishable features other than two eyes, a nose, and two ears), it has eyes you can look at and that look back at you. (Automobile headlights can also be perceived this way.) The point is not, of course, to claim that bears are objectively conscious beings, but how easy it is to project consciousness onto them. Most people, when confronted with a bear, will go along with the fictional personality attributed to it by its owner (although one doesn’t like to think of oneself as owning these creatures, who are more like friends than pets, since they share a human consciousness). Some are “bear people” and really enjoy meeting new bears, most are at least politely tolerant, and a minority, particularly of the older generation, wax indignant at the idea of talking to a bear. A distinguished elderly lady of my acquaintance was offended at being introduced to Henri, whom (which?) she called a “toy.” Bear people can accept such things with good grace, since bears don’t get upset about them unless we want them to.
One of the things one tends to forget in “serious” life is how central fictions are to our existence, not simply as “entertainment,” but as embodying the primary function of language and other forms of representation. If one thing has maintained my faith in GA over the years it is that GA offers us a superior understanding of the unique human faculty of representation. Since Raymond Tallis participated in our Victoria GASC, I have read through a number of his books, whose constant theme is to denounce the darwinitic notion that the theory of evolution explains the origin of the human, and especially the neuromaniacal idea that human consciousness is a material reality analogous to the operations of a computer. I could not agree with him more.
But what then is human consciousness? It depends on language, and cannot be understood in the absence of the signs of language. And however much philosophers are preoccupied by the structures and functions of language, none of them really understand it, because they fail to see the necessity of formulating for it a scenic hypothesis of origin, whereas Girard, unconcerned with language as such, gives us the simple key to the mystery by defining the primary function of culture as the human’s need to avoid self-destruction. We don’t use words because we need to tell each other where the food is; on the contrary, given that we are no longer animals who can rely on “instinct” to share food without conflict, we designate it by a linguistic gesture to tell each other that we will not attempt for the moment to appropriate it. Pointing to the central food source in the originary event is not sharing “information” about it but fictionalizing it, making it something sacred, and the result of this operation is not simply to pin the label “sacred” on it, but to generate the intuition, which I dare say that GA alone has understood, that “pinning on labels” is always in principle creating fictions, because there is no “real” thing that signs correspond to. The serious and eventually scientific use of signs is a way of operating on the world through models; it uses fictions that can be manipulated to control reality. In a sense we all know this, but philosophy is incapable of understanding it without leaving the world of reality altogether; we hover between something like Lenin’s “reflection theory” that everyone makes fun of and different versions of “language philosophy” that poke at sentences like Swift’s Lagado academicians to discover what they “really” mean.
Why then bears? Bears, fictional creatures who, in the right context, can become the objects of intense affection, are not pets. An animal is not human; one can love it dearly, but projecting human consciousness onto it, as pet owners are occasionally wont to do, is just making it into a bear, and if what you want is a bear, it’s a lot easier to take care of a creature that requires no feeding, cleaning, or “walking,” let alone putting to sleep.
Although one can care for a bear on one’s own, bears are best shared with another. They easily acquire personal histories and psychological traits, likes and dislikes, etc., but this is greatly facilitated if one has someone else to share them with. I am sure that, even had I already acquired the habit of living with bears, I would have many fewer if they were not the object of our family dialogue. There is nothing futile in talking with and about one’s bears, since there is nothing in them that is not drawn from ourselves, yet at the same time projected onto an Other of perfect visibility. I will leave it to psychiatrists and the like to analyze the psychological benefits of such projections, which are nothing like hallucinations. Indeed, discussing the feelings and opinions of bears is like literary creation, but without the challenge of producing something publicly beautiful. It is a gratuitous creation of meaning as a means to maintain intersubjective harmony, and as such it is as close as we can get in everyday life to the originary use of language.
Only cognitive scientists are silly enough to believe that there is only a difference of degree between humans and animals. The special nature of bears is that it is we who grant them the gift of human consciousness. No doubt one can make a bear of anything; Tom Hanks in Cast Away made a friend of a volleyball named Wilson. But the specificity of the bear is to possess at the outset animal awareness without the human consciousness that accompanies language and associated cultural systems of representation. On the Sistine ceiling, God touches Adam’s finger and “creates” him, but in normal circumstances, when we see a representation of a human we assume that its development is independent of us; if it is an infant, it makes infant noises and wets its bed; if beyond infancy, it has learned to speak without our help. But a bear cannot think or speak without our attributing this agency to it. That is the special interest of bears; they confirm our “divine” ability to confer human consciousness.
I hasten to add that this confirmation is not a sign of overweening pride, but of generosity. Bears are objects of love, not of domination. It is in fact interesting to observe that even those who would kick their dog to make up for their frustrations have no reason to mistreat a bear, which cannot feel pain and cannot therefore supply the necessary reinforcement of sadistic violence (nor, conversely, can it make its owner suffer). The only thing one can do with a bear is love it, and the fact that injury to a bear would cause pain to its owner is a sign of this. In effect, one has added in a completely arbitrary fashion a new being to the total of those for whom one is responsible. Admittedly, this responsibility is limited, as bears are hardly demanding, yet within these limits one is deeply concerned for their safety and well-being.
This provides us, and I say this seriously, with an experiential understanding of what we conceive of as God’s love for his creatures. Divine omniscience and omnipotence too are figured in our relationship with bears; conceiving their thoughts and actions is, again, not a proof of our power (over what? the physical plush animal?) but of our responsibility. I am not suggesting, in the polemical mode so popular a few years ago when people were insisting that God is not good, that having a bear gives proof of God’s existence. It is better than that; it helps explain how the “idea of God” functions within the anthropological configuration that makes us human.
When the Bible tells us we are made in God’s image, we think of this in religious terms, that is, in terms of an already existing God who, whatever appearance we associate with him, has a form of consciousness anterior to ours but that we can relate to only insofar as it resembles our own. “God creates us in his image” means that our human consciousness is understood as coming to us from one who possesses it “since the beginning of time.” In the terms of the originary hypothesis, which proposes a scenario in which human consciousness emerges out of the “natural” world that preceded the human, there is a moment at which the human selves participating in the scene must have attained the first stage of this consciousness in performing the sign, the “aborted gesture of appropriation,” in order not to appropriate the object but to designate it to the others as what could not, for the moment, be appropriated. To the extent that we can put ourselves into the minds of these first humans at this moment—and to the extent that they are already human this cannot be impossible—their only possible object of thought must have been the central object itself as a focus of non-appetitive attention shared with the others in the group. If we compare our originary scenario with Michelangelo’s Sistine scene (incidentally the object of a 2010 book, Michelangelo’s Finger, by Raymond Tallis, for whom pointing is the origin of human consciousness), the most curious difference is that in the anthropological scene, the humans alone are pointing/designating/signing at the sacred object, whereas in the painting, God’s finger gives life to Adam. This gift of signing is the essence of “creation in God’s image.” Which is to say, in the man-creates-God scenario, we create meaningful sacrality by pointing non-appetitively at the central object, and thereby figuratively endowing it with the finger that points back at us as though it was first to do so; in the inverse scenario, it is God’s finger that activates ours, hitherto inert.
When we “adopt” a bear, we need no ceremony such as the Sistine Chapel depicts, but by choosing to be the bear’s companion we attribute to, we grant it a human consciousness, and this should make us realize that consciousness in this sense is always a fiction, the product of a “theory of mind”: a scenic creation, not a “reality” of the kind we can find in nature, where the scene of human culture does not exist. Granting the power of consciousness to a bear doesn’t magically endow it with any faculties whatever except in our own mind, but precisely this shows that the capacity of the human mind to extend its theory to another being is equivalent to the power of consciousness itself. If we can understand ourselves as selves, then we can understand other selves as selves, and this means that we can create fictional other selves.
Why was it so disappointing to HK fans to learn that her creators think of her as a little girl rather than a bear? There are fictions and fictions. A bear by definition cannot be a human character. What would it mean to say that Pooh Bear is “really” a little boy, or Minnie Mouse a little girl? The absurdity of a little girl with cat whiskers, and who at Easter season can add bunny ears, is but an external sign of the real anomaly. Animal-like creatures are the most appropriate bears because we know that animals have a certain awareness of the world and lack only the faculty of representation to be human. Human dolls can of course function likewise as fictional selves. But the attempt to convert an animal bear into a human doll produces a let-down. I imagine Sanrio thought that by telling us that Hello Kitty is “really” a little girl, even giving her a “human” name, they were adding value: a little girl is surely a more valuable being than a kitten. But the dismayed reaction of the public shows that the little girl, who, if she were real, would not need us to possess human consciousness, is for this reason less valuable as a fictional figure than the kitten, who cannot be imagined as a real human but must remain a bear in order to benefit from the gift that we alone can make her.
Not being a religious person myself, I do not feel qualified to tell the religious how to think about God, but I can suggest to non-believers that if they would understand the relationship between God and his creatures, they should ask themselves what, if they were bears sitting on a toy-store shelf, they would feel toward the one who adopts them and endows them with a self. In an obvious sense, such an imagination is “impossible”: bears’ minds aren’t real, so one can’t imagine sharing one. But the miracle of creation is precisely that before it happened, there was flesh but no mind in the human sense.
Anthropologically, we don’t need God; we make ourselves conscious by discovering that when we negate our appetite we do not simply have nothing, but Sartre’s néant, the nothing-ness that separates us from our objects of desire, that lets us talk and think about them. But there is no way in which we can “feel” this happen, since we cannot imagine ourselves without consciousness. Yet if we think theologically, then God’s mind knows us as bears, and knows us at the moment when he endows us with consciousness, which in our case is not fictive but real, which only means that its fiction perpetuates itself in the world without the need for another’s thought.
Here darwinitis plays no role; as bears, we can’t see ourselves as the product of a long line of creatures that somehow gradually learned how to talk and think and use signs like humans. We would have to face the fact that at some moment we acquired this ability, in however rudimentary a form, all at once, like Adam’s from God’s finger. And if we are still not inclined to accept GA’s construction of a scenario in which this transfiguration might have taken place, we can just think of ourselves as bears that Someone took home from the store.