Years ago, I found Eric Voegelin’s characterization of the Enlightenment as “Gnosticism” curmudgeonly, to say the least. After all, the Enlightenment’s arrogant hostility to religion does not cancel its positive historical role in ushering in the modern age of science and technology, with its vast upsurge in human creativity. Whatever our complaints, it’s hard to discount living decades longer with a far higher level of general health. What could I have done about cataracts back in 1800, or even in 1960? How could I have kept my blood pressure down? Not to speak of all our “modern conveniences,” and even more, of the far more fulfilling careers and life-experiences modernity has made available to so many more of us. If this be the wages of Gnosticism, it is hard to reject the bargain.
Nonetheless, having witnessed the ever-increasing domination of the university and much of the rest of our culture by victimary orthodoxy, I can’t help being reminded of Voegelin’s condemnation. Their pontifications of our “woke” intelligentsia stem from the same epistemological source as the excesses of the Terror that marred the French Revolution: the promotion of the resentment of “victims” into an uncontested principle of justice. And as became ever more clear in the revolutions that followed, from Lenin to Mao to Pol Pot—not forgetting those other revolutionaries Hitler and Mussolini—the tyranny and injustice of the new systems dwarfed those of the regimes they replaced.
I sense that our civilization, although troubled, is far from being on its last legs. We are spoiled historically, having lived without major wars for two generations, which makes it unfortunately impossible to predict whether our culture-wide indulgence of victimary resentment is leading us on a path to destruction, or is just a harmless acting-out of adolescent rebellion to distract us from the digital revolution and its consequences. Take a look at the pictures of Berlin in 1945, let alone Hiroshima or Auschwitz, or for that matter, of Aleppo today, and try to imagine similar images from the centers of Western civilization. 9/11 in comparison was but a blip. So it is hardly too late to fight the victimary trend on intellectual grounds.
I cannot help but ask myself what is the connection between Western culture’s increasingly dogmatic victimary autocritique and its equally dogmatic refusal, GA of course excepted, to conceive the passage from the proto-human “state of nature” to that of the originary moment of language as other than a gradual, evolutionary transition. As a point of departure, I can only cite as evidence the similar feeling of intense frustration provoked in me by both.
What then are the available attitudes toward language origin?
There are the traditional faithful who, at least in the West, believe that the Logos is the gift of God. I am less sure that language is given such prestige in other religions; my very limited study of Buddhism revealed rather that, at least in the Mahayana tradition, the “truths” asserted by the propositions of language are all deemed self-contradictory. This is traceable to what I have called the fundamental paradox of signification that begins with the originary sign: significance is presupposed by the very sign that creates it, just as the truth of a given proposition is presupposed before it is asserted. This is the source of paradoxes of the “This sentence is false” variety, but it can be applied as well, as Nagarjuna tries to show, to all propositions. This suggests that language can be seen less as a divine gift than as a worldly temptation that the sage must expel from the scene of representation, which, as we know from our “mindfulness” classes, Buddhists take great pains to empty. But for our present purposes, I will limit myself to the religions of the West.
The philosophers who underwent the “linguistic turn,” today essentially the only ones still standing, remain firm adherents of the metaphysical faith that language is a tool, like mathematics, not an element of human history. These philosophers have stripped the Platonic credo of its ethical-political dimension and simply consider language the neutral ground on which thinking takes place, and that it is up to us to use correctly, whether it be as “ordinary language” or a more rigorous refinement of it. I am sure none of these philosophers would deny that human language had an origin in time, whether gradual or abrupt, but they would consider any such matters as lying outside the bounds of philosophy. We can admire their discretion.
In contrast, if we take Jacques Derrida as the major post-structuralist Continental-existential-phenomenological thinker, we are struck by the fact that his masterwork De la grammatologie shows the origin of language to have been his central preoccupation, even as he uses Rousseau to show that this origin has always already taken place. Derrida knew as well as I do that language has not “always already” existed, but his point is not about paleontology, but about human culture.
In his view, we cannot think the origin of language without falling into paradox, as Rousseau, living before Darwin, was simply obliged to do. Derrida’s “scenario” of the origin of language is anti-scenic, like the world of the barber who must yet cannot shave himself. He cites Rousseau’s depiction of “the first” languages only to show that his descriptions always-already contain in germ the “supplement” of writing that destroys their “natural” spontaneity. Derrida would surely never have admitted that Rousseau’s paradoxes are precisely what demonstrate the need for the originary hypothesis.
Now Derrida is gone, and his many disciples have blended in with the “progressives.” The remaining interest in the origin of language is pursued by biologists, linguists, cognitive scientists, developmental psychologists, and primatologists who, obeying what amounts to a sacred interdiction, exhaustively examine the transitional interfaces between the various parameters of human and animal communications. These scientists are unanimous in seeking an evolutionary sequence from ape to man that effects the transition gradually, without an originary event. Even the absurd Chomskian notion that language originated all at once as the result of a genetic mutation does not posit a human event, but a biological occurrence. In any case, today’s scientists reject even this punctual notion for a reassuring gradualism. The emergence of language from the world of primate communication is put in the category of Eubulides’ paradox of the heap: if we pile up grains of sand one at a time, at what point do we have a heap? The superiority of human over animal “language” becomes a merely quantitative matter.
As for our victimary friends in the humanities and “soft” social sciences, I cannot vouch for what they think about the origin of language, but I think we can stipulate without hesitation that they would accept the scientists’ verdict: we humans are but one among many animal species, and a good many of both the friends and the species view our presence on this planet as something less than an unalloyed benefit.
Thus we arrive at this question: what is the connection between the denial not only of the Genesis version of language origin, but of any event of the origin of language—a condition that we might call linguistic atheism or non-originarism—and the spread of victimary thinking in our culture?
Using this new category, we can transform the traditional dichotomy of atheists and believers into that between those who affirm and those who deny the relevance of an originary event. I say “relevance” because it is not a matter of denying or affirming that “the” event took place, but of the explanatory validity of our model of the human based on the generative notion of an originary event, more or less as described in the originary hypothesis.
We can then claim that non-originarism justifies Voegelin’s condemnation of the Enlightenment as Gnosticism, as well as the power of victimary thinking among the non-originarists, given that they acknowledge no transcendental check—even an anthropological transcendental check—on their resentments. Finally, and crucially, we can define the task of originary thinking as affirming the necessity of originarism. This admonition remains within the limitation defined by Richard van Oort’s cautionary reminder that GA is not a religion, yet allows it to either supplement or substitute for historical religions, whose existence the originary hypothesis explains as individual manifestations of its maximally general model. Belief in the sacred in terms of a given credo would then be secondary to the acceptance of what seems to me the necessity of deriving our understanding of human culture, its ethics and esthetics, from the event of the collective inauguration of the scene of representation.
So the question comes down to this: how can our anthropological originarism provide the necessary implicit or explicit basis for a public ethic that can persuasively transcend the epistemology of resentment to reestablish in our academic and deliberative institutions a functional level of political and intellectual civility?
What is necessary is to go beyond the traditional wisdom of Dostoevsky’s “if God does not exist, anything is possible” to provide an anthropological basis for the ethical wisdom implicit in our definition of the originary human event as the first instance of the deferral of violence through representation. I hope to further develop these ethical implications in a future Chronicle.