The opposition between the ostensive and the declarative elements of culture is not one of linguistic forms, but of fundamental modes of human communication. The root of human culture is the birth and rebirth of the community in the sharing of the ostensive sign, as a mark of the deferral of individual appetite and its integration into the will of the group, subordinate to the scenic center of desire. Essential to this foundation is the ability of all to produce the sign and thereby affirm both this deferral and the designation of its central cause. The detachment of this act of designation from its originary object, and its focus on a figure of the center as inhabited by a conscious will that we intuit on the basis of our own, are what justifies the dictum that theology is good anthropology. We understand ourselves as we understand this central force, and ultimately there is no anthropology without theology. But GA’s “theology” is designed to defer indefinitely any attribution to this force of powers over phenomena other than human—whence the second half of the formula, that theology is bad cosmology.
GA is a new way of thinking because it constitutes a substantially new starting point for reflection on the human. This reflection includes all three families of discourse in which humanity has expressed its self-understanding: anthropology, philosophy, and theology, with the proviso that the dogmatic mode of the latter is incompatible with the hypothetical mode of science. Thus although we can endorse John’s “In the beginning was the Word/logos,” we must distinguish our hypothetical reading from the apodictic one originally intended.
It would be pleasant to think that given the radical nature of the shift GA proposes (I would not call it a “paradigm shift,” since we are resetting the boundaries of the fields of study themselves), it must correspond in some way with a major advance in human welfare. But the mindset of GA militates against prophecy; the history of human culture is one of continual revelation about ourselves and the world, but also of frequent backsliding and disaster.
The reciprocal communication of the ostensive sign in the hypothetical originary scene establishes the moral model against which we measure the morality of all our interactions. Corroborating this assertion is our readiness to resent any infraction of reciprocity, even when social constraints prevent us from acting on this resentment. The originary hypothesis offers the only plausible explanation for this phenomenon, which we find so “natural” that we see no need to justify it. It is not that we conserve some visceral memory-trace of the euphoria of the first emission of the sign around the sacred object, but that this model of moral equality is the foundation of the human community, as commemorated institutionally in religious rites as well as in civic and national ones, and formally in our common capacity for language.
But although the equality that consists in all emitting the same ostensive sign creates and maintains the community, this form of language cannot be used to think, to create potential verbal models of reality that can be empirically tested. It is only with the declarative proposition, by means of predication, that we can say something, true or false, about the world. Yet once the world imposes on our language a criterion of truth, the community can no longer be confident in sharing and reciprocally exchanging it. Once we are no longer commemorating the originary event but adventuring into external reality, some will speak about it more correctly than others. This, not superior physical force, is the source of the hierarchies humanity has experienced ever since the first “big-man” put together enough surplus food to unbalance the previously symmetrical cycle of “totem” feasts and dominate the ritual system.
GA differentiates itself from philosophy/metaphysics in its insistence that the declarative sentence is not the originary, “natural” form of language, but could only have emerged as an evolutionary development of the ostensive, with the imperative serving as an intermediary stage.
In The Origin of Language (TOOL), I hypothesize that the imperative emerges from the “inappropriate” use of the ostensive sign, normally emitted in the presence of its referent, as a means to (re)produce this referent in its absence, as a child hearing “mommy” as his mother’s “name” will call it in her absence to make her appear. We must assume that at the origin, the correspondence of word and referent is not yet understood as the product of an “arbitrary” act on the part of the human speakers; it is the sacred central referent, for the moment inaccessible, that seems to command the signs we use to refer to it.
Thus the imperative is an extension of the ostensive to refer to a non-present reality, which its interlocutor is commanded to make present. But this making-present is a real-world action, one vulnerable to failure. The declarative comes into existence as a response to an imperative that could not be obeyed, making use of language to correct a prior non-correspondence of language with external reality. The act of predication reflects the failure of the interlocutor, or in a more general sense, of “the world,” to respond to the “magical” use of the ostensive-as-imperative in order to make present its referent or signified. With the declarative, language becomes for the first time the instrument of a “reality principle” that cannot be obviated by the sacred accord of the community.
In the originary event, all had to renounce their desire, and the ostensive sign was the mark of this renunciation, but the payoff of this shared gesture was the ability to peacefully share the (edible) object of contention as a group purged of its former pecking-order hierarchy, that is, as a community. The obstacle overcome by the originary ostensive, in other words, was internal to the proto-human community, however much it must have appeared to the group as imposed by an external force centered in the object of common desire. In contrast, the renunciation imposed by the declarative is not determined by the community itself, and consequently guarantees no communal payoff. At best, further action will be required to bring about the success of the original imperative, whose goal may well have to be abandoned for a lesser one.
Thus at this stage the moral equality of the human community is no longer germane to the task at hand. If at the origin, all are in principle both equally obliged and equally capable of renouncing and subsequently of sharing, when it comes to responding to the worldly situation brought about by a failed imperative, not all are equally able. An individual who succeeds in righting the situation may well feel entitled to a reward beyond that of the others. Yet just as those who first understood the originary sign as a sign and not merely an aborted gesture of appropriation presumably received no reward beyond the common distribution, so in hunter-gatherer societies down to the present day, the more adept are as a rule forced to share equally with the others. Hunters are expected to bring back their prey to the group and divide it up evenly. Until such time as the cultivation of land permits the accumulation of a surplus that can be exchanged for a superior social position, these societies remain egalitarian.
But by the same token, contrary to their Rousseauean idealization, these societies are characteristically violent. Egalitarianism breeds resentment. If all are supposed to be equal, then the least difference is an offense that must be avenged, leading to cyclic feuds that can span many generations. The collectivity maintains a general order, but cannot prevent “private” acts of hostility. Murder is frequent, as are the casting of spells and other attempts, rational and irrational, to even the score with those one suspects of violating the norm of communal equality.
It is this unwelcome lesson that is ignored by those who would see the social order as a great T-ball game in which no score is kept and everybody wins. Society beyond its first stages cannot function to make everyone feel equally useful and deserving of its rewards. Although Israel owes a great debt to the pioneers of the kibbutz movement, the kibbutzim have largely been converted into collective residences where the members each earn their own living. After the first, heroic generations, they had become refuges for the least ambitious members of Israeli society, and their original insistence on all sharing equally in all tasks was incompatible with the technological and managerial needs of a post-agricultural economy.
Thus the fundamental ostensive morality of the originary community must be supplemented by a declarative ethic: a way of organizing society that respects the moral equality of its members, yet does not fail to encourage the initiative, the firstness, of each individual in his or her own domain, well understanding that not all can attain an equal degree of excellence.
The contemporary West’s victimary obsession, which contrary to my prediction at the time, has drastically increased since 9/11/2001, is founded on its insistence on applying the originary model of moral equality to all examples of social difference. An exemplary case of the absurdity of this procedure in worldly terms is a recent article that disparages mathematics as an attribute of “Whiteness.” (See Chronicle 563.) We should note that the real referent of “Whiteness” here, whatever the intention of the author, is not Caucasian skin color but unmarkedness, the absence of the victimary quality presumably shared by “people of color.”
But if the moral model indeed exists from the first moment of the human, why then is it only now that victimary identity politics has taken over wide swaths of the Western political spectrum, from Mélanchon’s La France insoumise to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and become the dominant force in the US Democratic Party?
GA’s historical explanation of the victimary phenomenon traces it back to the Holocaust’s demonstration of the horror of Nazi racialism. But the victimary is part of a historical development that began in the French Revolution, with the conception that the natural end state of the bourgeois market is some form of universal economic equality. The self-regulating market having taken over from religious ritual as the dominant source of social order, this utopian ideal had gone through various avatars since the days of Robespierre. It was on this background that the Holocaust appeared to furnish the reductio ad absurdum of any system that comes in conflict with the originary moral model by imposing de jure distinctions among human groups. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, this contemporary version of victimary thinking in terms of ascriptive groups has largely absorbed and replaced the older Marxian class analysis.
Traditional Burkean conservatism lacks the weaponry to defend what had once been common-sense distinctions against the universal application of the criterion of moral equality. Thus objection to “marriage equality,” a notion undreamt of a couple of decades ago, is now stigmatized as “homophobia.” More ominously, schoolchildren are increasingly taught that the economic and military superiority that had led to the world dominance of Western civilization are evidence of the same racism that led the Nazis to exterminate the Jews.
None of this is based any longer on anything like a Marxist assertion of economic inevitability. It is instead founded on the notion, ever more broadly applied, that allegedly “objective” truth-values are merely masks for “white privilege.” How then do Western economies continue to function in the face of a powerful movement that constantly condemns their “injustice”?
It is at this point that we must consider the difference between ideology and reality. The difference between successful modern industrial societies and the basket cases one finds in many parts of what was once called the “third world” is that in the former, the choice of economic roles remains based predominantly on competence rather than favoritism and corruption, whether or not in the name of “socialism.”
It is something of a relief to realize, given the extent to which victimary values have become dogma, that the social order in advanced societies like the US has nonetheless not been seriously perturbed. Major scientific work continues to be done in our universities, including serious scholarship in history and the humanities, despite the vast sums devoted to what can only be called victimary studies and to the proliferation of “Deans of Diversity” and the like. Enterprises such as Google remain highly profitable despite their management’s fanatical commitment to the victimary credo, with dissenters obliged to hold their tongues or face dismissal.
The situation in Europe is if anything more severe, if less given to the “snowflake” forms of offense-taking that reflect the university focus of the victimary in the US. Nothing like the Rotherham “grooming” scandal has to my knowledge occurred here, and not even the worst American neighborhoods can be described as “no-go zones” (zones de non-droit is the sinister French term). One is almost forced to consider that the discharge of victimary resentment and the “virtue-signaling” White Guilt that accompanies it are tolerable byproducts of a social order that increasingly depends on high levels of technical skill.
As I have pointed out (see Chronicle 541), this development is not simply a matter of quantity becoming quality, as the less skilled jobs become less numerous and offer fewer paths to advancement. It reflects a social differentiation that shows signs of breaking down the common religio-civic culture that has in one form or another always held human societies together. Class distinctions are far less rigid than they were as recently as the days of Downton Abbey, but today’s status differences are more clearly rooted in skills of symbol-manipulation that reflect more than mere status. In this context, associating mathematics with “Whiteness” signals a genuine problem. No amount of approval for such nonsense will make mathematical skills less of a prerequisite for an increasing number of key positions in modern society.
GA’s derivation of today’s ascriptive victimary thinking from the moral model rooted in the event of human origin brings out not merely the underlying reason why it is impossible to contradict it directly—for the moral model is universal—but is able to account for its historical genesis. It also allows us to distinguish between the guarantee provided by originary morality and the needs of modern society, which requires an ethics of difference.
It is the critique of our supposedly “meritocratic” ethic in terms of ascriptive difference that is the real crux of today’s victimary identity politics. The justification provided for victimary moralism is not simply that all humans are moral equals, hence equally deserving, but that the ostensibly merit-based distinctions that allow for a “fair” distribution of privileges are instead based on ascriptive privilege, understood on the model of the Nazi concentration camp or antebellum slave society.
Calling mathematics a sign of “Whiteness” is not equivalent to simply denying its social value because it accords an allegedly undeserved privilege to those more skilled. It claims, with no apparent need for proof, that this privilege is unfair because it is conferred by skin color rather than by any inherent quality of intelligence. The mere fact that whites do better at math than blacks (forgetting about Asians, whose minority status is alleged only when convenient) is taken as prima facie proof of racial privilege, just as the disproportionate number of blacks in prison is often cited as proof of racial discrimination.
Originary analysis cannot “solve” this problem—the problems of difference and resentment can never be “solved.” But the virtue of this analysis is that it both clarifies the source of the values in question and shows the limits of their application. Rather than proposing a specific social model as a utopia to work toward, GA doesn’t pretend to know the future. It sees Western Civilization and the liberal democracy that embodies its values as worthy of preservation, not because it constitutes the “end of history,” but on the contrary, because it is the social form possessing the highest number of degrees of freedom, where to the greatest extent possible, the process, economic and political, can be trusted to produce satisfactory results without tyrannizing over individual interests. But “the greatest extent” is not infinite.
Humanity is founded on the moral model, but its increasingly dogmatic application and the vast hypocrisy this entails cannot continue on their present path. Only to the extent that we realize that our current system is and will always remain “the worst system with the exception of all the others,” will we devote ourselves to preserving and strengthening it, rather than, by seeking to “deconstruct” it, allying ourselves implicitly or explicitly with the far more sinister systems that seek to supplant it.