However detailed the account we can give of the “big bang” that inaugurated our universe, and whatever theory may emerge of the bang’s own emergence from some previous state, we will necessarily remain incapable of explaining how the entire system of the universe, or multiverse, began in the first place. It cannot avoid illustrating one or the other case of the inexplicable: either how something emerged from nothing, or why something was always “there.”
But in contrast with our curiosity about the universe, we have a particular interest in, and a real possibility of, understanding our own emergence. The current generation’s denial of the very significance of this emergence as more than a rather special example of biological evolution demonstrates in fact the fearsome residual power of the sacred. The increasing strength of this denial reflects what in religious terms might be called the “demonic” generalization of our species-specific sense of moral equality to the point of denying humans’ unique moral value, rejecting any claim to a higher ontological status than other living creatures, even than our geological habitat (“Gaia”).
In the previous Chronicle, I emphasized that the human inhabits a higher ontological level than all other known entities in the universe, including all other life-forms. Humanity will never come to understand itself if it continues to refuse to accept this difference, crediting its current virtue-signaling claim of self-hatred (with its roots in our originary terror of firstness) over the simple evidence of reality.
The Enlightenment overreached itself in many ways, but its anthropological achievements, which led directly to the establishment of the science of anthropology itself, cannot be denied. And in its less radical versions, as represented in the American founding, its intuition of human ontology was clearly sharper than that of the anthropological profession today, where religion’s contributions to human self-understanding are dismissed when they are not simply ignored, and along with them, any hint of humanity’s unique status.
The term “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence is a good example of such an achievement; its very lack of precision is an advance over the mention of the Judeo-Christian or any other God, not merely because it avoids depending on any particular faith, but because in its deliberate lack of particularity it defines its subject solely as an agent, which is to say, as not a blind force, but an intentionality, albeit not necessarily embodied in a particular being—which would be ipso facto “supernatural,” transcending the laws of nature. On the contrary, the absence of any qualification admirably respects the “creator’s” paradoxical nature from our perspective.
Religious views of the creation treat the creator as sacred by definition. Yet “the sacred” is rather an anthropological than a religious term; it refers to a force experienced by all humans—and only by them—in what we call our conscience or, in a more explicitly religious context, our soul. Unlike the creator, the sacred is not implicitly assigned to a particular being, and to make this clear, I have referred to our sense of the sacred. We all have a sense of the sacred as a force/will telling us to do, or more often, not to do, certain acts, but not necessarily a sense of a being that embodies this force. Sacred, in a word, is a theoretical term, and the exotic terms like mana used by early anthropologists to designate it tacitly understood that none of the tribes they studied, lacking the intellectual tools developed by civilization over the millennia, could conceive of a generic “sacred” abstracted from the contingent particularities that they attached to it.
According to the originary hypothesis, the sacred, whether or not preexistent in a supernatural being, emerges into human consciousness as an experience of interdiction, that is, not as a conditioned-reflex inhibition, but as addressing our conscious will—like God’s interdiction of the Tree of Knowledge. This emergence did not in our hypothetical scenario take place all at once, in the mode of a revelation like Jesus’ to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Rather, beginning from an initial sense of interdiction that we can assume motivated by the fear of renewing the violence that had broken out on previous occasions of distributing the product of the hunt, the participants’ original gestures of appropriation toward the cadaver were aborted, and came to be interpreted by both their makers and observers as signs of this deferral or renunciation, thereby serving as mutual assurances that the signers were not seeking as individuals to possess it in whole or in part. But as the sense of symmetry within the group was enhanced by the repetition and reciprocal transmission of the sign, the hypothetical scene would evolve in a positive direction, with as its eventual result the peaceful, “equal” division of the meat among the participants, and an eventual feast that would include not just the hunters but the entire community.
In this way the sacred would preside over the creation of a new, egalitarian ethic, one that is still observed among tribal societies today. This sequence of actions, this event or scene, would then constitute the creation of the human, whose subsequent biological evolution would henceforth increasingly be driven by the exigencies of this new mode of social organization, notably by the evolution of language.
The intentionality of the sacred can be minimally understood as transcending the appetitive drives of each individual, but whether the event/scene as described was the project of a transcendent Subject, as in religious scriptures, or whether it emerged from the scene itself and was only retrospectively understood as foreordained, as ordinary human inventions that are the products of trial-and-error approximations may later appear as the “necessary” solutions to the problem in question, is from our perspective a moot point.
Did all these first humans have, on the conclusion of the scene, a sense of a sacred force beyond their control leading them to this happy solution? It suffices to note that this sacred force was effective in resolving what we must assume was a crisis resulting from the breakdown of the prior distribution system, and that the newly formed human community, which differed from its pre-human state precisely as a result of this experience, accepted the sacred sense of this resolution.
Looked at sub specie aeternitatis, the “atheistic” denial of the uniqueness of human origin is an extreme example of the epistemology of resentment: a reaction to mankind’s long-term dependence on religion understood as a tool of oppression. All the effort that has gone into theological meditation on these questions, however fruitful it has proved in its own terms, would have made it seemingly unquestionable that the claim that human ontology transcends that of other living beings must be dependent on theism, or at least, deism.
It is surely no coincidence that the moment at which a plausible anthropological theory of human origin such as GA can at last be formulated is when the age’s moral self-consciousness makes consideration of any such theory taboo. Yet taboos are fortunately not the equivalent of conditioned reflexes; they are subject to reflection, and attempts to demonstrate their inapplicability can in principle be understood and eventually accepted. This freedom of human thought can be repressed, but not definitively suppressed.
To offer a parallel that may be useful in opening minds to the plausibility of the originary hypothesis, we should ask those who doubt that humanity must be understood as the product of a sacred intentionality or force, to explain the similar force, of a far less dramatic nature, that inheres in human language. In both cases, the later developments of humanity and of language are far more striking than the beginnings—whence my term “little bang” for the originary event (see Chronicle 589). Yet given that language must be learned, the analogy of our “Superego” of language with that of the sacred should suffice to exemplify an intentional agent embodied in the system itself. We need no God to teach us language, yet our common possession of the tools of linguistic communication is of the same kind as that of the moral “instinct” that makes us hesitate before breaking the peace with our fellows. To disobey a linguistic rule is analogous to deliberately committing a sin against the moral order, although it has nothing like the same moral weight.
As the title of our journal, Anthropoetics, suggests, generative anthropology began as a “humanistic” anthropology by—and for—literary scholars. Yet it goes without saying that GA’s foundations precede the existence of “literature” of any kind, and indeed the existence of mature languages in which alone literature could be composed. As I have explained at length in these Chronicles (see, e.g., Chronicle 624), GA is a product of “French Theory,” the final phase of the 20th-century phenomenon that we may call literary anthropology: the privileging of secular literature as a source of anthropological understanding, and, subversively, as a tacit refutation of the supposed linguistic neutrality of Western metaphysics.
Can it be merely coincidental that the “scientific” denial of human uniqueness coincides not merely with GA but with the very moment when the Western higher educational establishment, particularly in the US, is passing through the most serious intellectual and institutional crisis of its existence, calling into question the fundamental values of these institutions nearly all of which have surrendered to the dogmas of wokeness? This strongly suggests to me that, safe from “cancellation” in its underneath-the-radar status, GA may well be destined to provide a crucial element of the solution to the intellectual problem that this crisis poses to our continued pursuit of self-knowledge.
The question of religion itself needs to be separated from that of human origin, but only “tactically.” The continued existence of religion from its coeval beginning with language makes it highly unlikely that it can ever simply be dispensed with. Yet the current direction of the West makes it virtually impossible to conceive a large-scale return to traditional religion—save conceivably in the long term, given that in current Western societies, religious families are alone reliable reproducers of our species.
GA “brackets” the existential question of religious faith, which is by no means to treat it as nugatory. Unlike GA, no theology can be truly minimalistic or Ockhamite. But we must insist on the extent to which religion has heretofore contributed to our self-understanding, that is, to our anthropology. It is surely no accident that René Girard’s anthropological intuitions provided the original basis for GA—although, as Girard himself was happy to point out, they involved no “new discoveries,” merely a new perspective on what had already been made evident in literary texts and their scriptural predecessors—while remaining at best incompletely accessible to philosophers.
This is no doubt a meta-anthropological problem. But meta-anthropology can never simply be distinguished from anthropology, as the analysis of syntax might be distinguished from lexicography. To the extent that we are dealing with genuine anthropology and not mere human biology, meta-anthropology and anthropology are one and the same. Once again we encounter a variant of Chomsky’s association of the human with recursion, which is also the paradoxical basis of the impossibility of a fully rational “science of the human” as we can conceive it in the case of the natural world, including the biological.
The scene of human creation is indeed the model for the human scene in general. Whether having been created by a sacred being, or having learned to create itself under the aegis of the sacred, humanity is constantly creating itself anew. Generative anthropology has at last provided us with a plausible model of this originary creation. Let us hope the world will survive long enough to take advantage of it.