for Marina Ludwigs

Not having traveled abroad since 2019, after this year’s GASC in Ottawa, I took advantage of Marina’s kind invitation to a little conference on “The Event” that she had organized in her home town of Stockholm.

It was far from the norm of academic conferences. Although most of the presenters had some connection to academic institutions, the group included a couple of physical scientists, a theater director, and the director of a training program for video game composers, along with humanists from a variety of fields. It was held in an idyllic setting at some distance from the campus of Stockholm University, and was characterized by an unusually fraternal and cordial atmosphere, aided by communal lunches and dinners.

Participants spoke of the paradoxical quality of quantum “events” which find particles in specific places only on measurement, as well as of the sense of eventness conveyed in narratives and in philosophical texts.

The last presentation of the conference offered me what seemed like a wonderful opportunity to point out the relevance of GA. Marina’s colleague Lotta Einarsson showed the full 13 minutes of Quad, or in German, Quadrat, a TV play by Samuel Beckett, first performed in Germany in 1981. It was without dialogue, and consisted entirely in watching four characters in different-color robes walking swiftly in symmetry on, around, and off a square “stage,” shot by a camera from above. The most minimal of Beckett’s minimalist dramas, the coincidence of its action with what I would call a schematic reproduction of the originary event allowed me to conclude the conference by pointing out the persistence of the scenic imaginary in its minimal form. Although the ceremony ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and of course with no caloric payoff, I noted that the scenic center was clearly marked and that none of the characters, whether only one or all four were on stage, ever stepped on it, and that conversely, even when all four were circulating along the diagonals of the square, they all neatly avoided each other without missing a step. That the play expressed in its minimal form the intuition already at the base of Waiting for Godot in 1953, that the essence of human life consists in peacefully wasting time in symmetrical ritual interactions, in deferral, was as close as I could come to offering cultural “evidence” of the pertinence of the originary hypothesis.

Yet however striking this evidence from my perspective, I am sure I did not succeed in convincing anyone, Marina excepted, of the pertinence of GA for understanding the fundamental human category of the “scenic.” Although the participants in this conference were no doubt less trendily leftist than the norm on today’s campuses, even those appalled by the antihumanist woke trend show no sign of being attracted to GA. Scientists and academic scholars who have not already thought about this matter are not predisposed to concern themselves with such matters as “the origin of the human,” with its uniquely recursive mode of representational mentation.

The idea of an originary hypothesis smacks too much of religion to appeal to today’s intelligentsia, who have lost the intuitive sense of the fundamental unity of religion and language/culture so obvious to Frazer or Durkheim, and still affirmed by Roy Rappaport in the last years of the 20th century. “You can’t prove it,” the reaction of a linguist colleague to a GA talk a few years ago, remains valid for those who see no particular reason why we should need an originary hypothesis—who on the contrary consider the very idea of such a hypothesis as a “superstitious” survival of our religious past.

GA centrally seeks to demonstrate the homology between religion and linguistic significance at our earliest stage. Thus I have recently adopted the term sense of the sacred to describe our sense of moral obligation, one that is so to speak encoded in language but that cannot arise from this encoding, whose origin must rather be sought in the real-world behavior that language defers, and which defines the human from the beginning. But experience has shown that, however elegant it may appear to those attracted to such things, a religion-tainted constructive hypothesis is suspect in the eyes of the ever-skeptical intellectual. If Derrida and Girard have one thing in common, it is on the contrary their deconstructive emphasis.

The human ego can indeed easily be induced to grasp an idea as new and compelling. It suffices to tell people, “your common sense tells you that X,” to force them to anticipate some new revelation that at the very least they can use to amuse their friends. Girard’s secret weapon was to show people that their own desires were “mediated,” by first showing how the greatest literary works exemplified this, and then suggesting to readers that if they were not aware of mediation in their own lives, that was merely the proof of its power. Nor is Derrida’s “you/Western civilization think/s that spoken language makes its referents ‘present,’ whereas writing is merely a secondary means of recording speech” is not all that different from “you think that your desire is a dual relationship between you and its object.” Both assertions express a common-sense understanding that you both fear and desire to see debunked.

Whereas, given that no one has a clear idea about the origin of language, the fact of enunciating such an idea provides rather an occasion for one-upmanship, like expressing faith in the existence of the tooth fairy. One of the conference participants indeed made (in more euphemistic terms) exactly this point, pointing out that earlier “scenarios” of origin, such as Freud’s in Totem and Taboo, have failed to stand the test of time. And we all remember the determination of the Société de linguistique de Paris in 1866 to refuse to entertain hypotheses concerning the origin of language.

For we moderns have “gone beyond” theories of origin. The sole theory of evolution should suffice to explain all adaptations of creatures to their environment, including of necessity their internal environment among their fellows. That humans have developed a more advanced system of communication than other creatures (and the whole thrust of scientific affect today is to treat all such affirmations of superiority with suspicion and even hostility) is no particular mystery. Richard Wrangham’s notion of “domestication” (see his The Goodness Paradox [Pantheon, 2019], and the Coda to Chronicle 614) that defers acts of violence (although he fails to emphasize that the planned violence characteristic of humans is not shared by other domesticated animals, who do not possess language) ostensibly suffices to explain how humanity confronted its increased tendency to mimetic rivalry.

But is a critique of reader psychology truly germane to a discussion of such a significant topic as human origin? By asking this question, we leave the classic domain of academic debate—defined, as we are well aware, by the metaphysical criteria of the classical academy—for what can only be called the domain of the sacred.

And there we are faced with what might be called the fundamental question of GA: given that, as Richard van Oort pointed out years ago, GA is not a substitute for religion, does an anthropological doctrine that seeks to include the full anthropological content of religion minus its act of faith have a useful role to play in a society no longer readily accepting of the content of such acts?

No doubt no intellectual project can anticipate its possible consequences—or lack of same. But this said, the forty-year history of GA has done little to comfort its handful of adherents. The reaction that does not seek to refute it but dismisses it as mere speculation, in contrast with less ambitious but empirically based research into the details of human evolution, is founded on the presumption that even the most plausible, intuitable hypothesis has nothing to teach us. Thus in answer to my point that Beckett’s little play independently illustrates a compatible vision of human origin, the skeptic questions the possible usefulness of a theory founded on an intuition that, in the absence of religion’s act of faith, is demonstrable only in an esthetic context, in the absence of appeals to the empirical criteria that allow us to “believe in” science on the evidence of our senses.

In response, I can say only that it is a fallacy to think that the decline of religious faith can simply be compensated by the power of empirical science. Indeed, one is tempted to take the history of physics over the past few decades as providing evidence that some transcendent power is giving us strong hints of the contrary. After all, even as we strengthen the Standard Model of particle physics via such things as the discovery of the Higgs boson, we also discover that an increasing proportion of the energy/matter in the universe is inaccessible (“dark”) to our measuring devices.

I will avoid taking this literally, but in any case, the human is not something that we can treat as exclusively the object of “hard science,” and the human/social sciences have never pretended to provide even potentially a full explanation of human conduct. The recursive nature of language makes any such explanation impossible in any case, since to comprehend an explanation of human behavior is to refute its rigorous necessity. Not to speak of the historical evidence provided by religion that the sacred is not simply reducible to a reflex of some kind. The freedom of the pour-soi is an aspect of human reality that can only be understood from a transcendental vantage point.

None of which is likely to make GA any more attractive to those who accept the minimal, empiricist view of the world, which is in effect a reduction of the human to the mechanical, a return in theory if not in practice to the deterministic world of Laplace. The passion for finding extra-terrestrial intelligence, for emphasizing the essential identity of animal and human intelligence, let alone that for rejecting the perpetuation of our own species as a virtuous gesture toward saving Gaia from climate change and the other forms of pollution we have visited upon her, cannot be satisfied by a hypothesis that emphasizes the essential freedom human representation permits with respect to the prehuman world, a freedom that is indeed as much a threat of self-annihilation as a promise of future benefits.

I do not think that there is a solution “out there” to this problem that we can hope to discover in the near or distant future. Human self-confidence indeed depends on faith, whether or not grounded in the persistence of supernatural benevolent forces. The leap of faith by which religion insists overtly on the irrationality of its foundation from the standpoint of our empirical experience can no longer be relied on as a general rule in an era that can no longer experience “this world” as a preparation for the next, that no longer sees the contrast between its limitations and the scope of our imagination as a convincing indication, if not a formal proof, of the necessity of the soul’s transtemporal existence.

Believers in religion can easily find in GA an alternative way of explaining the emergence of humanity that remains neutral as to the ultimate source of its potentially infinite transcendentality. The source of resistance to GA, not merely in its specifics but in principle, is rather the contemporary non-believer, not affirmatively agnostic but taking the position that any explanation of the transcendent is one too many, who rejects any self-conscious understanding of human origin, relegated to being as unknowable as the origin of the universe itself.

What indeed was “there” before the big bang? What does it even mean to ask that question? That we should accept the unknowability of the human as being of a similar nature is never affirmed directly. Rather, the contrary assertion is dismissed as obvious nonsense in the face of so much unknowability. The idea that, unlike the origin of the universe, that of humanity is one thing that is indeed eminently knowable, that metaphysics has always sought to know, and that Derridean post-metaphysics has virtually explained, is less rejected as a hypothesis than turned away from as what amounts to a desecration, a lifting of the sacred veil. The “return of the sacred” is nowhere more visible than in our instinctive sense of shame before the spectacle of a genuinely objective understanding of the event of our origin.