It is Generative Anthropology (GA)’s ambition, not to synthesize the substance of these discourses, let alone to “inter-disciplinarize” them, but to trace them back to their originary roots and explain why they diverged, and why their diverse paths were in some sense necessary.
In The Origin of Language (TOOL) I made a fundamental distinction between two ways of “commemorating” or “reproducing” or “repeating” the originary scene: the formal and institutional reproduction of the scene. None of these words corresponds exactly to what I am referring to, which is the fundamental representational behavior, using the “same” representation at different times either to characterize analogous preexisting situations or to create replicas of them. On the one hand, language, which repeats the scenic device of designating the center of attention; on the other, ritual, which reproduces the scene’s participatory element, characteristically ending with an alimentary payoff, although this may be “transcended” in what we call the “higher religions.” In one case, we regenerate the scene itself, as though society had fallen into what Girard calls a “mimetic crisis” and needed reconstitution, or as Durkheim put it, to reinforce its “solidarity”; in the other, the scene is taken for granted and used to shed on new matters the kind of attention originarily given only to the sacred center and its supremely desirable occupant.
Whereas the ritual commemoration of the originary event is directly concerned with this origin, such is not the case for formal representation or language. At some point, perhaps quite some time after language began to be used, the center of the scene of linguistic representation, unlike that of ritual, becomes desacralized, and language acquires its “secular” functions of expressing worldly desires (imperative) and finally of furnishing information through (declarative) predication about the world. Nothing about this use of language destines it to be used for reflection on the “human condition,” whereas ritual and the discourses that are attached to it, whether derived directly from ceremonies or elaborated on their basis (myths, sacred legends, prayers), are by nature reflections on this originary sacred/significant reality.
Which is to say that what we may call “anthropological” discourse in the broadest sense, representations concerning the foundation or “creation” of the human, were until the inauguration of philosophy in ancient Greece the exclusive domain of ritual-related or religious discourse. And as those engaged in the modern science of anthropology realized from the beginning, religious discourses offer a privileged insight into early humanity’s self-image, just as the texts of the higher religions still furnish our deepest intuitions about the human.
Philosophy is from the beginning a meditation on life in a polis freed from sacred kingship. Ethics is its central concern, and the faith that subtends it, which is made explicit by Socrates/Plato, is that the community can come together around a common concept of the Good, as we would say that it did originarily around a common designation of the sacred.
As I have attempted to show (see “Plato and The Birth of Conceptual Thought,” http://anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap0202/plato/) the key ethical concept of the metaphysics instituted by Plato is that, given that the human community shares the Ideas and their moral valence, rightly understood, its members should never come into conflict. Thus when Plato claims that the Good is something we all seek, the idea that “goods” are indexical, that my good is not the same as yours and may indeed be opposed to it, is an illusion of desire that can never be valid in principle. Doing evil to others for one’s own immediate advantage is never truly in one’s interest, since the Good is in the interest of the entire community. But in contrast with a given community’s faith in a specific embodiment of the sacred, the Good does not require what we would call an ostensive act of faith, since for the philosopher, the Idea subsists independently of the human community.
What allows us to have faith in this assertion is the fact of our shared language itself, in which the Ideas are formulated. Which points to the key limitation of metaphysics: its insistence on the primordiality of propositional language, of the declarative sentence, whose “self-evidence” philosophy never puts into question, and indeed, can never think of as being capable of being put into question. Reference to Socrates/Plato as the founders of the “discipline” of philosophy, as the term “pre-Socratics” suggests, makes clear that it is their reification of predicates such as (the) Good, Courage, Beauty… that distinguishes full-fledged philosophy from the less disciplined meditations that we find in their predecessors. The postulation, which we need not call “faith,” that these predicates have a single meaning that can be elucidated by analyzing their usage is the very basis of philosophy, which is to say that philosophy is founded on our common possession of formal as opposed to institutional representation, in a word, of language as our common possession and the principle of our unity. But what this means is that, unlike religion, which conceives of itself in one way or other as the commemoration of our moment of origin, philosophy cannot conceive of an origin of language, or of a conception of language in which the declarative sentence or proposition is not present from the outset. It is this fundamental characteristic that is best understood as the definition of metaphysics.
The social sciences are a different story, with a history that is far less clear. But they all have their roots in the Early Modern period, and their ancestors in antiquity. Tracing their history is not germane to my purpose here, which is to define an originary anthropology that can be compared with religious and philosophical “origins.” The fact that philosophy cannot conceive a state of “being” without language (philosophical speculations on the origin of language, being detached from the problematic of philosophical language itself, are already a form of “social science”) means that it cannot approach a truly anthropological conception of origin. Hegel’s point of departure in Being, which Heidegger and even Sartre did not reject, is mystified in its very nature, given that “Being” is a word of human language, not a “thing” or “substance” that can be pointed to in the world. Indeed, in the Western religious tradition, it is God who defines himself as “being what/that I am.” Whereas, whatever its limitations, the social science of anthropology can at least address the problem of the worldly origin of language, and consequently, of the human, painting a plausible picture of the world as being at one moment without (language-using) humans and at a subsequent moment becoming home to them.
Because it accepts the temporal existence of humanity, which necessarily involves a beginning within a world that already includes other life-forms, the social science of anthropology should have no difficulty in principle in considering GA’s originary hypothesis, and more generally, the idea of an originary event. Yet this is precisely what anthropology as a social science has never considered. The reconstruction of a hypothetical originary event, as inaugurated by Freud’s Totem and Taboo and pursued by René Girard, has never been accepted into the anthropological canon.
The search for a minimal definition of the human implies a punctual origin, since the human is a creature of events, and events are significant, not merely unnoticeable “happenings” that add up over the millennia, such as transformations of DNA through mutations. One can certainly quarrel with Freud’s metapsychological definition of the human as it emerges from his father-murder scenario, as well as with Girard’s simplification of it into “emissary murder,” but today the very possibility of a scientific as opposed to a religious or philosophical scene of origin is not so much refuted as rejected on methodological grounds. Because we cannot hope to find empirical evidence for such an event in what remains to us of the bones and artifacts of our distant ancestors, the whole question is abandoned in favor of an eventless gradualism.
No doubt the example of the physical sciences, where from a human perspective, objective, natural “events” can be said to occur, leads science-thinking astray. For clearly there is a difference in time-scale between a planet orbiting a star, making its way around its orbit over millions of years, and a supernova, or a collision between black holes. And indeed, we have no evidence of anything in “prehistoric” evolution that corresponds to the latter as opposed to the former. But the analogy is faulty. Planets and stars have no culture. Celestial bodies don’t remember the changes that occur in them, whether (from a human perspective) imperceptibly or suddenly, even if they bear their physical imprint. We fail to see the difference, because for us events, in nature as well as human history, are what is memorable to the community that recalls them, in language and/or in reenactment, as human society recalls supernovae and eclipses but not each moment of a star’s daily routine.
Thus the intuition that human culture begins with an event is by no means refuted by exposing the naiveté of a given hypothetical event’s purported motivations. Even the “Oedipus complex” as the memory residue of guilt for an originary father-murder is worthy of more than a sneer. To grasp what Derrida would later call deferral as the primary human characteristic, whose origin must be given a plausible etiology, is to take a great step toward reconciling the religious accounts of human origin with the Sartrian pour-soi, the most refined metaphysical picture of the human scene of representation.
The Oedipus complex is, as Girard has pointed out, an overloaded formulation, the specificity of the paternal relation being obviously dependent on a far from universal form of family relations. But if all this is stripped away, Freud’s scenario depicts the origin of guilt and withdrawal more insistently than Girard’s own “scapegoating” scenario, where any final withdrawal is the result of satiation rather than a sense of interdiction. Yet the originary hypothesis needs not be encumbered with Freud’s specificity, nor even Girard’s, where the “emissary victim” is drawn from the group and singled out for expulsion on the example of the scapegoat in Leviticus.
I have no intention of blaming the excessive specificity of these scenarios for the discredit into which all “myths of origin” have fallen. The problem of methodology that rejects a priori any such scene because it cannot be empirically demonstrated is of a more general nature. I have discussed elsewhere (see Chronicle 555) how “Big Data” has captured the social science imagination by its ability to provide results beyond our capacity for conceptual intuition, somewhat in the same way that a computer has recently “taught itself” to master Go, using only the rules and not the human history of the game. Unfortunately, in explaining cultural phenomena, as opposed to winning at board games, one cannot avoid the “emic” realm of the conceptual, as well as the origin of the realm of the conceptual itself, that is, of language, within a pre-human universe.
Whence the pertinence of both Freud’s and Girard’s emphasis on violence, extrapolated in different ways from the prevalence of sacrifice in ritual—although, curiously enough, both models ignore the obvious alimentary function of sacrifice. Perhaps the Jews no longer bring their sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem, but as anyone knows who has attended a Seder, or for that matter, a Christmas dinner, the important thing in these ceremonies is sharing a meal. But if that is the case, why do humans need a cultural superstructure to do what animals accomplish without it? This chain of reasoning leads us, as expected, to the originary hypothesis.
The insistence on deferring violence at the expense of alimentary satisfaction no doubt owes its intuitive evidence to the “higher religions.” Christianity’s abolition of sacrifice reflects the destruction of the Temple and the end of its sacrificial activities. A similar withdrawal is visible in Buddhism and even in Hinduism. But although it is true that these religions embody a more lucid and therefore more originary anthropology than more primitive ones, this implication is not equivalent to a minimal hypothesis.
John’s “In the beginning was the Logos” sums up GA’s ambition to combine religion, philosophy, and anthropology in a formula more striking than any other, including our own admittedly less dramatic definition of the human as the deferral of violence through representation. But John’s sentence must be interpreted, for it attributes human transcendence to an extra-human source. Girard’s own disinterest in the alimentary element of sacrifice has always seemed to me a simple consequence of the equivalence of Christ with the “Word,” and the consequent dematerialization of ritual sacrifice into transubstantiation in the communion ceremony. Such practices no doubt embody a more profound spiritual intuition than that which presides over traditional animal sacrifice, but they are only possible because their participants can rely on a more advanced social order for physical nourishment. The deferral of violence is indeed the essence of Christianity and of religion in general, but its divorce from alimentation is a step forward that only through analysis clarifies the sense of the original “sacrificial” event.
Only the originary hypothesis has successfully offered such an analysis. Indeed, the fact that its explanation is so clear, so simple, makes it easy to understand why, like the emperor’s birthday suit, it has been ignored for thirty-seven years. I have more faith in its truth than in humanity’s capacity to absorb it. But I have not yet altogether lost that faith either.