As I have had occasion to remark, GA is an outgrowth of French Theory, a French Theory that includes René Girard, not as a marginal too-easily-readable figure, but as the Judeo-Christian counterweight to its dominant “Greek” orientation. The entire group, not exactly a school, although more so in retrospect than it seemed at the time, was engaged in the struggle to free Western thought from the metaphysical way of thinking, first conceived by Parmenides and Plato (with a little help from Socrates), that became known as philosophy. Girard was readable because he attacked metaphysics from an external, Christian perspective, whereas the more difficult, philosophical writers, Derrida in particular, sought to deconstruct metaphysics—that is, “philosophical” language—from within, with all the paradoxicality this implies.
In retrospect, these two factions of French Theory can be seen as representing both sides of the political spectrum. Although Girard had no specific political goals, his quasi-Jansenist critique of mimetic desire—which he significantly calls metaphysical—could be seen as a conservative caution to a society that encourages desire rather than restraining it. As the epigraph of his Mensonge romantique declares (see Chronicle 696), we cannot avoid choosing between mediation by God or by an idol, and it is not by accident that the book concludes with Alyosha’s evangelical words from The Brothers Karamazov. Girard’s reading of these novels, and implicitly of all literary texts, makes the choice between worldly and divine mediation of desire, idolatry and worship, the unique theme of literature and of all culture.
In contrast, although the first work of postwar Nouvelle Critique, Roland Barthes’ 1953 Le degré zero de l’écriture, was directed specifically against the écriture of Stalinism and in favor of a “zero degree” (exemplified by Camus) that embodied the freedom of Existentialism, the internal critique of metaphysics saw the latter’s neutralization of language as masking a repression embodied in “truthful” language itself, whether (Communists) by the ruling elite against “the people,” or (Nazis) by the mass against the “authentic.” The common feature of the overcoming/deconstruction of metaphysics from within is a critique of culture itself—religion, even language—as a mode of oppression.
Yet despite Derrida’s expressed sympathy for left-wing causes, as its name suggests, deconstruction, like its caricatural extension in today’s wokeness, had an exclusively negative focus. From his beginnings in La voix et le phénomène, Derrida’s point of attack was la présence, described as a despotically imposed revelatory state very different from its freedom-affirming Existentialist equivalent, the néant-inhabited pour-soi that makes its objects present on what we would call the human scene of representation.
Derrida’s critique of Rousseau in De la grammatologie as the key modern representative of metaphysical thought can be reduced in sociological terms to the denial of the significance Rousseau gives to the difference between la société commencée, in which man, having begun in the “state of nature”—which pre-Darwinians needed to explain the clearly non-“natural” origin of human culture—is able to form an egalitarian society before experiencing the “fall” described at the start of the second part of the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité by the ominous Le premier qui, ayant enclos un terrain, s’avisa de dire, ceci est à moi . . . [The first man who, having fenced off a piece of land, had the idea of saying “this is mine”. . .] Egalitarian hunter-gatherers are not “noble savages,” but they did, and still do, live in societies lacking hierarchical divisions, however unidyllic the results have tended to be. For, unfortunately, resentment does not require inequality, merely the suspicion of inequality.
Derrida understood that if the scene of culture is to be deconstructed as the rulers’ imposition of an illusory “presence” in order to inveigle their subjects into believing in the scene’s sacred nature, this critique cannot be limited to religion, but must include language as well. This understanding, however perverse, reflected a profound anthropological intuition.
But such intuitions are not necessary in today’s social sciences, which employ language but have no use for religion. Whence the disdain of a whole generation of social scientists for religion, not just those like Richard Dawkins who attack it, but those like Michael Tomasello who, in a work on the origin of morality, dismisses it in a few amateurish sentences (see Chronicle 519).
In other words, in the view of today’s respectable and often woke social science, we need no longer “deconstruct metaphysics.” The only deconstruction necessary is to rid anthropology of the notion of the originary. Not only do we know that early societies were not hierarchical; we no longer need presume that they had “religion” in the sense of experiencing the sacred as an interdictive will. No doubt they had rituals, but so apparently did their ape ancestors; such forms of social solidarity thus imply no specific link to language and the other elements of human culture. It is only when we get to ceci est à moi that progressive thinkers denounce religion and the related wiles of the ruling class.
The ultimate end of liberation from metaphysics cannot be understood in political terms, as though history were fated—as Communists or Nazis would have it—to embody its final truth in The Party. In the enterprise of human self-understanding, the end is rather to grasp the essential, minimal difference between the human and what preceded it. Yet as we know, in the world of today’s social sciences, the contribution of the originary hypothesis to our self-conception is not rejected so much as considered irrelevant, all but superstitious, and even when shown appreciation for its intellectual adventuresomeness, never taken seriously. If we seek to define our current culture’s inauthenticity, it is here that we see it in its naked truth.
The intellectual snobbery that contributed to the prestige of French Theory is an easy target for ridicule, but it served to liberate the “Anglo-Saxon” mind from its unquestioning fealty to the metaphysical faith, the ultimate expression of which was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which ends, Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen. [Concerning that about which we cannot speak, about that we must be silent.] Sprechen here means, precisely, emitting declarative sentences, logical propositions. And since the first human utterances could not have been logical propositions, one simply cannot speak of them. No more lucid statement than Wittgenstein’s is conceivable of faith in Parmenides’ way of truth, ὅπως ἔστιν τε καὶ ὡς οὐκ ἔστι μὴ εἶναι, [what is, and cannot not be]; nor is there a clearer expression of the tautological nature of metaphysical truth, founded on self-evident “being” that by definition cannot be questioned.
If it took deconstruction to liberate the “Anglo-Saxon” mind from the embrace of this tautology, tant mieux. But unless we can find a higher understanding that encompasses both Parmenides and his opponents, we remain stuck in a sterile dilemma of the sort initiated by “This sentence is false.”
Before human language, such paradoxes did not exist. If paradox is the logical equivalent of God’s punishing the first humans for eating of the forbidden fruit, then why did God give us language in the first place? Or in anthropological terms, what did humans create language for? If it was indeed, as Parmenides suggests, in order to follow the Way of Truth, how then is it possible to conceive false propositions?
There is no answer to these questions, but they suggest that to understand the origin of language, and of the human, one must return to the stage of language… before propositions. This is a state of humanity inaccessible to metaphysicians, Derrida among others—yet not, at least in theory, to anthropologists, who can perfectly well conceive early humans using what I call “ostensives” but not yet declarative sentences. Yet the world of science remains, or has become, so resolutely metaphysical that although it is obvious that the first stage of language would involve single signs before their combination, given the absence of evidence (prehistoric tape recordings?) it cannot be considered.
Not that anyone denies that pre-declarative language must have existed. But more final than denial is dismissal. Darüber muß man schweigen.
Yet if we cannot understand why humans would invent/discover language before truth, before declarative sentences, before metaphysics… then how can we even speak of “anthropology”? Is the Logos of the human somehow not present at its origin?
We can say, to simplify, that the first sign designates an object of “infinite” significance, in the sense not simply that all desire it, but that its possession is beyond comprehension in the configuration of the originary scene, to the point that it can only be possessed as a representation. But as we have seen, the human scene itself exists only in the context of a sacred will, one that is not a theoretical construct, but a force experienced by all its participants. This allows us a simple definition of the difference between the two objects of worship, God or idol. In an inversion of the fool who looks at the pointing finger rather than the object it points to, the idolater desires the central thing and ignores the interdicting will that makes it central.
Significance, in a word, exists in a space of deferral created by the sacred. Significance makes truth possible, not the reverse. We become capable of true propositions only once we recognize the significance, the sacred meaningfulness, of their elements. The metaphysical world of propositions reposes on the sacred as the prior guarantee of its significance, the source of the néant of deferral that allows us the time and space in which to contemplate the world and explore its potential utility.
That the idea of an event of human origin, hence of the sacred scene itself, cannot be discussed is an absurd consequence of this contemplation, whose practice leads occasionally to such pragmatic paradoxes. We evolve rigorous procedures for exploring the potential utility of the natural world, and at a certain point these procedures no longer permit the exploration of our own origin, save in material (say, genetic) terms that this origin itself makes no longer suitable.
One might call this the Darwinian paradox. The discovery of the mechanism of evolution, which Darwin himself saw principally as the means to discover our own origin (The Descent of Man), makes this discovery “impossible,” or at any rate, unsupported by our cultural institutions, because, precisely, Darwinian evolution, while explaining both our origin’s biological and ethological basis, cannot explain its specificity: that the creatures that “evolve” to the point of becoming human begin at that point to experience their existence in irreducibly non-biological terms.
There is no gene for humanity. The human cannot exist in a merely biological world; it requires a culture. The human is a reductio ad absurdum of biological evolution. When a creature evolves powers that make it a greater danger to its own existence than the dangers of the external world, this creature can be preserved only by a sacred force that, experienced within but as if from without, defers its appetitive use of these powers.
Metaphysics—rational thought, science—is the source of humanity’s triumphs over its natural limitations. But having learned to speak in propositions about everything else, we have only now begun to understand in logical terms wovon man nicht sprechen kann. And to our surprise, what we find is that the origin of language is what language was invented to talk about in the first place.