The Origin of Language (TOOL), published in 1981 by the University of California Press, is the only one of my books that was promoted by the publisher; an advertisement with my picture even appeared in the New York Review of Books. Its failure to attain best-seller status reflects less a weakness in the theory than the disparity between my theoretical interests and those of the linguistics community, whose Saussurean-Chomskian study of mature language is unconcerned with its evolutionary pre-history and suspicious of any attempt to reconstruct it.
I also returned to the chairmanship of the French Department in 1981, which gave me less time to write, but I was able to follow up TOOL in 1985 with The End of Culture: Toward a Generative Anthropology (TEOC), the first naming of our new field. The title reflected a certain impatience provoked by the discovery of the originary hypothesis. I ended the introductory section of the book with “… the end of culture; the beginning of human science,” not meaning to imply that culture itself was ended, but rather that henceforth cultural activity would forever be accompanied by GA as its evolving scientific self-consciousness. Even could this in some sense be true, I would no doubt have done better to let it be said by someone else!
I wrote these books, like everything else I have written, without any serious consideration of the academic market. A phrase of Girard’s that I will always remember is that I was constitutionellement incapable, intrinsically incapable of acting so as to cater to the preferences of this market. This was a domain in which Girard excelled, without in any sense compromising his principles. His formulation expressed a kind of pitying admiration for someone whose character makes him unable to strategize success.
Whatever the value of the theoretical material in TEOC, to attract a readership it would have had to be associated with or depend on an already authoritative source. And because, in the book, the theory precedes rather than follows the specific analyses—in obvious contrast with Mensonge romantique, which begins with a quote from Cervantes—TEOC did little to seduce those few who were tempted to open it in the first place.
The cultural analyses focused on the literature of Classical Greece and its predecessors in the Middle East. I have always been proud of my point that, as I put it, the “first word of Western culture,” menin, which begins the Iliad, the accusative of menis or rage, refers specifically to resentment.
Achilles’ resentful rage against Agamemnon, whose role as leader of the expedition to Troy makes him invulnerable to a personal act of revenge, may be said to define the minimal level of social complexity that permits the creation of what we can call world literature. And I think you must agree that not only is nothing preceding the Iliad of comparable literary quality, but no work of literature written since is qualitatively superior to it, neither as poetry nor as drama.
This makes a significant point in itself about the esthetic, and about “culture” in general. You can enjoy the Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe or the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, and no doubt reading them in the original would provide a more satisfying experience, but I cannot believe that either would as does the Iliad measure up to the masterpieces of modern literature. And although figural art does not admit of such a clear dichotomy, the “Greek smile” of humanization reflects much the same break, which corresponds to that between what Eric Voegelin called “compact” and “differentiated” societies, or between the “Axial” religions and their precursors.
TEOC concluded in medias res after discussing Sappho and the trio of classical Greek tragedians; there was clearly no way to pursue the discussion by going through the entirety of the Western literary canon. I would some years later go on to discuss the esthetics of post-Classical culture in Originary Thinking (1993).
It is no doubt understandable that from language I had gone on to “culture” focused on literature, given that the study of literature was where I had sought my insights in the first place. But had I to do it all over again, I might have done better to pursue the relationship, which I have foregrounded in recent years, between language and religion, the sacred and the significant. It has taken me some time to draw from Roy Rappaport’s intuition, expressed in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, 1999), that language and religion were coeval, that they were in effect two aspects of the same underlying phenomenon. At the time of TEOC, I still considered the sacred a derivative of language rather than a common element of the originary event.
The anthropological basis of Derrida’s différance is the need to defer appropriation, to stand back from the dangerously desirable object, thereby turning the gesture of appetite into a sign. But this act of representation is at the same time an act of reverence, an acknowledgement that the object itself is sacred and cannot be immediately appropriated, that its locus and form must continue to be respected even after its corporal reality has been destroyed.
Thus sacrality and significance are at base different degrees of the same phenomenon. Just as the objects of faith unite the community of believers as objects of reverence, each word in the language belongs to a communally shared corpus in which every speaker has a stake—as we witness in serious quarrels over changing meanings and constructions. The institutional differentiation created by the rites of established religions overlays but does not negate this common origin. The value of generative anthropology is in grounding this commonality, that is, taking it beyond metaphor, tracing it back to the evenemential origin of language and the sacred.
This human-scientific perspective should not be taken to imply that GA’s ultimate goal is to construct an organon that brings together, as if in an evolutionary tree, the branches of anthropological knowledge. Such an attempt can only be self-defeating. Cultural phenomena do not develop like living creatures by branching out from few to many species; their interactions, unlike those in the natural world, lead to constant recombinations and mutual transformations. Thus the institution of “literature” has developed by sharing features of religious scripture and the other arts; conversely theater, opera, and cinema incorporate and modify literary elements. The history of culture must be constantly rewritten as it reveals to us new aspects and potentialities of ancestral materials.
To take the Iliad as an example, that we can read it in the modern world as a work of fiction when it had earlier been recited at religious festivals as the equivalent of an oral scripture must be understood in the context of what we call “Western civilization” as much as in that of the Ionian context in which it was created. We must study the Homeric poems’ formative role in creating the very notion of literature, which in the West detached itself from religious practices earlier and more thoroughly than in the other major cultures, which only later borrowed such Western forms as novel and film.
After TEOC, I wisely avoided attempting further quasi-Hegelian syntheses. After a 1989 Twayne book on Madame Bovary, I published the following year a comparative essay on Judaism and Christianity entitled Science and Faith. I had first written this work in French, but by this time I had come to see that my future publications would be in English, and found an American publisher after revising and translating it. In this slim volume, rather than attempting to outline a general theory of religion, I chose to examine a single passage from each of the two Testaments as representative of the two moments of Judeo-Christianity: first, the scene at the burning bush in Exodus 3 where God reveals his “name” to Moses as ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am that/what I am; then the passage in Acts 8-9 that recounts Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus and his subsequent conversion. Since that time I have often returned to the comparison of these two religions, the one the “elder brother” of the other, without seeking to establish a definitive dialectic; in the context of Western civilization, both are living cultural systems, evolving in constant conversation with each other as they are tested by history.
My attempts at consolidating the lessons of GA as a methodology, focused particularly on esthetic and literary history, were renewed in 1993 with Originary Thinking. This volume was divided into two parts; the first sought to provide an overview of GA, and the second, to define a historical series of esthetic modes that could be applied to the evolution of the arts in the West: classical, neo-classical, romantic, post-romantic, modernist, and post-modern.
In particular, by way of focusing on the contrast between the classical esthetic discussed in TEOC and that of the modern Judeo-Christian world, I emphasized the theatrical self-consciousness by which the post-classical theater distinguished itself from its classical models by thematizing, in contrast with the ancients, the theatrical scene. This thematization is notably epitomized by the “play-within-the-play” structure frequent in Shakespeare. But even in its absence, not only Shakespeare’s protagonists but those, for example, of Racine, who eschewed the scenic complexities of the English stage, express a constant awareness of their imprisoning presence on stage so to speak as sacrificial victims who seek unsuccessfully to flee its fatality. Like Hamlet, Hippolyte in Phèdre begins the play by expressing the desire to depart, but Racine’s stage-world, bounded by the “unities” of time and place, allows not even a temporary escape. Neither, one might say, did Homer’s, but Achilles’ awareness of his inescapable destiny was not defined for a theatrical audience forced to share the protagonist’s sense of the stage as a place of fatality.
It was during the late 1980s and 90s that the notion of generative anthropology began to find institutional expression. When Kenneth Mayers, a Comp Lit student whose main field of interest was North African language and culture, took a French literature course with me where I spoke about my research, he encouraged me to give a seminar focused exclusively on GA. This inspired me to add such a course to the catalog, and as a consequence, in 1987, I taught my first seminar on GA in the French Department. During this period I made the acquaintance of Richard van Oort through the intermediary of Professor Toby Foshay, who had visited me in Los Angeles. Richard was very interested in GA, but chose to study at UC Irvine rather than UCLA, given its exchange program which brought Derrida to California on a regular basis. The result was that Richard attended a couple of these seminars along with several other English and Comp Lit students from UCI, including Marina Ludwigs and Peter Goldman. This was the beginning of the formation of the group that a couple of decades later would found the GASC.
The “coming out” of GA as a way of thinking can be dated from our first conference at UCLA in 1990, to which we invited as keynote speaker Marvin Harris, the late distinguished professor of anthropology perhaps best remembered for his support for the “materialist” thesis that the Aztecs and Incas practiced extensive human sacrifice because there were no suitable large meat animals in the Americas.
At the dawn of the Internet in the early 90s I created the GAlist, which has continued ever since. Then in 1995, Matt Schneider, Richard van Oort, the much regretted Tom Bertonneau, and I founded Anthropoetics, which has just completed its 28th year of publication. It was Tom who gave the journal its name, and his sister Denise Sollenne designed its logo. Also during the 1990s, I sponsored a series of talks at the UCLA Society for the Study of Religion, which was chaired by David Rapoport in the Department of Political Science. Among the speakers were Tom and Matt as well as several others from the GA seminars. The GA contribution to this informal group served as a catalyst toward the creation, also in 1995, of the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, for which occasion René Girard was invited down from Stanford to give the keynote address.[to be continued]