This week’s column is the first in a projected series of exchanges on the subject of Generative Anthropology. Our purpose is to clarify the fundamental ideas involved, so your feedback will be particularly valuable.


RvO – In order to contextualize our remarks, and to get our conversation going, let me summarize the main points of generative anthropology before addressing some more specific questions.

Generative anthropology is committed to a foundational and unified conception of the human. In the face of a widespread skepticism currently pervading much of the theoretical work being done in the human sciences, it stubbornly rejects the notion that the question “What is the human?” cannot be a fit topic for discussion. When we observe the humanities today, it indeed seems remarkable that in an area of knowledge devoted to a particular subject, in this case the human, there should be so little dialogue about what exactly that means. In this respect, the notion of “the humanities” appears to be more a terminological convenience, of use perhaps to administrators, than a bona fide designation of some fundamental subject matter.

But perhaps there is more to our topic–the human–than mere academic pigeonholing. For is it not significant that we are at least asking the question? What is it that allows us to even think about this question in the first place? The fact that we can think, and more specifically, speak together on this issue suggests that preceding all division within humanity itself there must be some underlying unity that gives us the capacity to engage in conversation with one another. Why is it, in short, that we have language at all?

This is in fact where we propose to begin, that is, with language. Before there can be disagreement about what is being said–i.e., about the content of language–there must be, at a much more fundamental level, a threshold of presemantic “presence” in which the gesture toward language and meaning can take place at all. This threshold of presence is not yet communicated as any specific content; it must be a purely formal moment of linguistic receptivity. This is in fact the form our hypothesis will take. The threshold of the human must begin with the threshold of language because it is only in language that the question of being human could arise. The originary hypothesis proposes that the question of humanity begins when humanity begins to represent. The discovery/invention of language defines the specific moment in which humanity originates. By referring to this originary scene we seek not to fill in a piece of objective history that is currently missing, but to actively participate in a dialogue with our origin that defines us as self-conscious language-users.

The crucial point about this form of thinking is to understand the implied dialogue we propose between ourselves and the original humans. Our predicament is ultimately shared by those at the origin. The first moment of language use occurs in the moment when it becomes impossible for humanity to exist without language. Language evolves when the dominant mode of prehuman interaction–nonsymbolic imitation–threatens the very stability of the social order. At the prehuman level, imitation is the fundamental mode of transmitting information between community members. By copying the gestures of the adult, the young engage in apprenticeship for more complex tasks such as hunting, which amongst the higher animals can involve highly specialized collective behavior (e.g., lions stalking their prey). But though direct imitation of a role model can transmit to the individual relatively complex collective behavior, such collective behavior lacks the formal criterion of language. In direct imitation I learn by imitating your gestures. But when I imitate your gesture toward the same object, my gesture is no longer simple but problematic. We cannot both appropriate the same object. Language emerges when mimetic appropriation becomes so intense that the presence of the object becomes too problematic for it to be included as the natural endpoint of imitation. Language is precisely the intervention between the imitating subject and the gesturing model of the problematic status of the desired object. Rather than understand the mimetic gesture as naturally fulfilled in the appropriation of the appetitive object, the intolerable nature of the mimetic situation forces the subject to understand the object as separate from his gesture. The gesture no longer leads to the object, but remains irrevocably separate from it. As such it is the first sign.

This crucial threshold in which language is hypothesized to take place is the event that specifies the particularity of the human. Given this framework for specifying the human, let us turn to some more particular questions concerning the efficacy of originary thinking. Many people will want to know how this model can influence our way of thinking about particular cultural institutions, especially those institutions, such as the economic and political, that appear to have particular relevance for us today. How can the hypothesis help us think pragmatically about our present political and cultural situation? What makes this theory more than simply another “academic” theory? In what way is it relevant to human thinking in general? How does it participate in our current historical moment?


EG – Some of these questions are more easily answered than others. I think you are right to begin with the most practical questions, and indeed, my attention has turned increasing to them, without however turning away from the fundamental anthropological questions that were GA‘s original concern.

At the outset, the originary hypothesis was meant as an extension of Girard‘s model of the mimetic crisis to explain not merely the establishment of social order but the origin of language. I had never accepted either the positivist idea that human language is just an evolutionary development of ape language, nor the deconstructionist idea that it always already existed. On the contrary, precisely because it alone could conceive the always already, this was one phenomenon that could not always already exist; it could only come into existence self-consciously.

So my first idea was to propose a scenario for the origin of language. I haven’t abandoned what could be called the empirical claims of the originary hypothesis, that the originary sign should be conceived as an “aborted gesture of appropriation,” or that human language originated as a means for the deferral of violence. But although we may some day have means of verifying or “falsifying” the hypothesis in empirical reality, not only is their discovery beyond my professional competence, they are not directly relevant what I understand to be the primary function of GA.

A scientist might say at this point that the very principle of science is to make statements that will subsequently be falsified, that one can at best create a new paradigm for the understanding of empirical data. But the aim of originary thinking does not coincide with that of positive science. Along with scientific paradigms for the analysis of empirical data, we have other models, “paradigms” if you like, that allow us to understand the fundamental human questions, those usually referred to under the rubric not of anthropology, but of ontology. These models cannot be positive because they take into account, as the positive ones cannot, our participation in them as objects as well as subjects.

The most fundamental questions are those posed not by anthropology, or even metaphysical philosophy, but by religion. I have never been a religious believer, although as an adolescent I had my period of fascination with the ritual aspects of religion. But I find it unsatisfactory to dismiss religion as a form of infantilism as our intellectual world tends to do–even the believers in our intellectual world.

Rather than a regrettable prolongation of infantile dependency, religion has been the only means available until now for thinking the historical specificity of human origin–and consequently, of the human. Its hypotheses may not–indeed, cannot–be presented as hypothetical, but they provide models for understanding how the transcendental world of the sign could have emerged as an event within the world of appetite. It is this that positive science denies; emergence must be gradual. Of course the emergence of anything is gradual if by “emergence” one means the entire course of historical evolution leading up to it. The originary event is always already deconstructed by the fact that the sign can never coincide with its referent either temporally or semantically. But an event is precisely what discounts, or takes into account, its own deconstruction. Its name names its occurrence; it is not a trace of a worldly thing, but neither is it a “pure” trace–it is the trace we retain of our leaving of the trace. Only religion has preserved this truth. As I said in Science and Faith, “creation science” may be a sham, but it has one point to make that evolutionists cannot answer, which is that the historical specificity, the event-nature of the emergence of the human is better explained by the Bible than by Darwin. It is absurd to claim that the separation between positive science and the reality of the human can be bridged by creation science, but this separation can be articulated–which is not the same thing–by generative anthropology.

This is an example of the kind of controversy that can be clarified by GA. It is not a matter of “resolving” the opposition between science and faith, but of constantly working to minimize the content under dispute. No doubt neither side would agree with originary thinking, but both would be obliged to admit that its formulation of the opposition comes closer than any other to reducing it to that between the critical need to define the originary moment and to live according to that definition–the religious position–and the scientist’s duty to maintain the deferral of crisis while searching for empirical evidence of this moment, both before and after its occurrence. Perhaps we are too quick to assume that the faithful will not only refuse to deny their faith but will reject any anthropological justification for it; perhaps we are also too quick to assume that scientists, at least those of future generations, will continue to turn their backs on the paradox of the emergence of the sign–the paradoxicality of which has inspired not only Derridean deconstruction but the more naive always-already of Jerry Fodor, who considers himself obliged to believe that all meanings are innate because he cannot see under what circumstances they could possibly be generated.

As I think the thrust of these remarks makes clear, as I have worked through my original idea over the years, I have become increasingly attached to the general form rather than the specific content of the originary hypothesis. The hypothesis makes an empirical claim, but in the absence of empirical data, our claim must be as minimal as possible. Thus one other name for generative anthropology is minimal anthropology. GA’s place in intellectual history is not, as I may have thought at first, to have discovered the origin of language–although this makes a nice slogan, it also makes us sound like crackpots. No, the purpose of originary thinking is to examine human problems in the context of the minimal anthropology consonant with all the essential human characteristics associated with representation–language, of course, but also ritual and religion, desire, the esthetic, morality and ethics, and so on. The more one pursues this operation, the clearer it becomes that the different forms of transcendence that characterize each of these institutions, be it the form-content opposition of art, that between law and conduct in ethics, that between the world of Ideas and the real world for metaphysics, and most strikingly, that between the timeless realm of God (“heaven”) and the temporal world of humanity–all these dichotomies are variants of the fundamental opposition between the transcendental sign and its worldly referent.

To be continued…