A hypothesis can only be actualized by a act of faith or “suspension of disbelief” that assumes it true and tests it in the domain in which it can be falsified. This domain is usually the real world, although we can create hypotheses about fictions, which is the business of literary and artistic analysis.
In either case, we make use of the unique human capacity for scenicity. The act of faith requires us to conceive a hypothetical scene of representation on which the hypothesis is presumed true, whether really, imaginarily, or transcendentally. Animals cannot understand fictions because they are not capable of deferring their appetitive relationship to reality in order to conceive scenes independent of this reality.
The most familiar use of act of faith concerns neither the real world nor a fictive one, but the expression of belief in a sacred being who transcends the real world. God’s creatorship is not that of a biological parent but of an artist in relation to his oeuvre, whether we think of him as molding us from clay or conjuring us up from his imagination.
Our act of faith in a hypothesis concerning an existing world, real or fictional, with the understanding that the truth or falsity of the hypothesis can be in principle discovered from the inspection of this world, is necessarily tentative, whereas the act of faith in a being of whom we and the world that surrounds us have been and will be the “work” is not. But in fact, however definitively we affirm this act of faith, its irrevocability is wholly dependent on our continued affirmation of it. Thus the Holocaust made many Jews (and others) “lose their faith” in a loving God, belief in whose providence had been implicit element of it. Similarly, Voltaire referred in Candide and elsewhere to the crisis of faith brought about by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755; how could a loving God do this to us? The same doubt assails non-believers’ faith in humanity’s chances of indefinite survival, whether anticipating the eventual destruction of the earth or the far more immediate danger of an extinction event like that which killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Such faith might be put in terms of the “anthropic principle”: is the universe ultimately anthropic?
The originary hypothesis proposes to derive the human world of différance, the pour-soi and the néant that have allowed us to give rise to human culture, from a world without it. Life, however “miraculous,” is natural; creatures that can reproduce themselves and interact in complex ways with their surroundings yet remain incapable of creating scenes in which they represent the world to themselves and others. In the absence of proof of ETI, humans are the only creatures who can construct scenes on which they contemplate objects of desire and share their representations with our fellows.
The originary hypothesis explains the human tendency to hypothesize one or more sacred beings as creator/master of the human world as deriving from our sense of the sacred. This sense is originally experienced as the deferral, as opposed to the reflexive inhibition, of appropriative activity in a collective event centered on an appetitively attractive object; as a result of the deferral of its appropriation, the object becomes the referent of a mutually communicated human sign in the event that constitutes the first human scene. Although we do not normally think of everyday language as “sacred,” as I have tried to show, the sacred and the significant differ only in intensity: to be significant, the object of a sign, is to have the potential of being contemplated on a scene of representation where appropriation is, for the moment at least, forbidden. The frequent tendency to defile the scene by the use of “bad language” is, paradoxically, perhaps the clearest proof of its sacrality, recalling that to use such language is traditionally referred to in French as sacrer.
In the context of our hypothesis, the eventual triumph in the “Axial Age” of some 2500-2000 years ago of transcendental over immanentist and monotheistic/atheistic over polytheistic conceptions of the sacred can be explained as the result of the intensified interaction of different human societies. This interaction led to the discrediting of immanent “sacred” objects by revealing the implicit contradiction between their presumably universal powers and their local nature. Similarly, the plurality of gods could not survive the confrontation of the diverse groupings that constituted the pantheons of the ancient empires. Once humans recognized that their societies had at their core analogous institutions, the sacred, which they all shared, came increasingly to be understood as fundamentally the same phenomenon in all of them.
This did not end the conflict among religions, but narrowed the focus of their differences to what are ultimately historical questions: not which society’s gods are the real ones, but which society’s experiences of revelation of the sacred were the truest. Whence the apparently paradoxical association in the “Axial” religions of a universal sacred being and a historical experience of this being’s worldly revelation—using “being” here in the broadest sense to include, for example, Buddhism’s revelation by Gautama of a sacred which is essentially a-theistic, separating the scenic essence of sacrality from any sense of a master/creator. Similarly, Jesus is believed to have revealed the new Trinitary understanding of divine being by his crucifixion and resurrection in the historical present.
My purpose here is to emphasize the similarities of these hypothetical modes, and in consequence, the usefulness of considering questions of the “existence of God” and the ontology of the sacred as objects of hypotheses that, whatever their differences, derive from our common human experience. In a word, I hope we can replace the atheist-theist dichotomy by the assumption that we all share a “sense of the sacred” whose ultimate source can be understood as a hypothesis to which we lend our faith, to whatever degree firm, explicit, and intense. This would permit GA to provide a basis for dialogue among religious and non-religious hypotheses concerning the core qualities of human scenicity.
A point that must be constantly repeated is that the determination of human specificity is pragmatic: our species has evolved the new form of consciousness embodied in the scenic as necessary for survival. Whereas all other creatures, whatever their abilities in given circumstances, can evolve protections against their mimetically self-destructive tendencies only via the process of natural selection, humans have become able to represent to themselves and their fellows the configurations that maximize their chances of survival—and this only because, having reached a certain level of mimetic intelligence, they would not have been able to survive without this ability. Another way to put this is that our species uniquely represents a greater danger to its own survival than does the rest of the universe.
Greater intelligence implies greater danger, and greater uncertainly. The originary hypothesis is incompatible with the possibility of deducing from it a “dialectic of history.” The original inspiration of GA emerged from the domain of literary analysis and its spill-over into philosophy and semiotics during the Cold War era, when such analysis had become a privileged source of anthropological insight. But insofar as we consider GA a “new way of thinking,” or more simply as a new anthropology, it is our duty to develop its principles in reference to the various domains of human social/scenic activity. It is for those who tentatively accept GA’s hypothesis as the best fundamental explanation of human behavior to devote themselves to the study of various modes of this behavior.
The overall horizon of this research is in the broadest sense the domain of the sacred. The religious perspective of our post-Axial age continues to define the sacred institutionally, by a set of scriptures and practices understood as the products of revelation, that is, of self-evident truths made known to us by a transcendental source. But institutional definitions of the sacred, whose validity must be affirmed by each religious believer’s act of faith, cannot replace, and are in no way incompatible with, a broader definition of the sacred as the shared basis of all human culture, including language and every other scenic activity.
Regardless of our personal beliefs, we can come together in our tentative affirmation of faith in the originary hypothesis—a faith that should not prevent us from modifying it whenever necessary. In this context, the specifics of the world’s religions can be understood as supplementary hypotheses that go beyond the minimal one of GA. The survival of religions over centuries and millennia lends credibility to their anthropological content; in the GA context, believers in specific religions can suspend their personal beliefs to evaluate the truths affirmed by religions different from their own.
I attempted to illustrate this possibility in Chronicles 515–516 by a (very limited) comparison between Judeo-Christian/Western and Buddhist/Eastern beliefs—beliefs that many in the West, and perhaps in the East as well, consider as fundamentally compatible elements of an integrated life-style, hence implicitly of an integrated anthropological understanding.
So far, the membership of the Generative Anthropology Society and Conference has barely extended itself beyond its original literary-critical base. And given the negative opinions on GA expressed by René Girard in his later years, it is perhaps not surprising that his followers, those most likely to share with us his conviction that the key human trait is our need to protect ourselves from the excesses of mimetic desire, have nevertheless remained reluctant to consider GA as a logical outgrowth of Girard’s original intuition.
We can overcome such resistance only by demonstrating that our “way of thinking” provides a superior understanding of human institutions. And this must be done in the context of an academic world which, although during GA’s first few decades very much alive to the issues I was able to raise, is in its present ideological configuration highly resistant to these fundamental questions.
I can only be grateful for the advantages afforded me by the era during which I was fortunate enough to begin my academic career. Yet the fact that, despite today’s very different circumstances, our little group has somehow survived for over 30 years would seem to suggest, as one of my long-time students said to me recently, that GA “has legs.”
When I am no longer here, GA will be yours to develop in the directions that you will choose. Some recent essays have explored domains such as economics, which is far from my personal area of competence. The test of such attempts will be their ability to impose their significance within and beyond their field, leading ultimately to the establishment of GA as a field in itself. The originary hypothesis and its immediate consequences are fortunately not confined within a single domain of the human sciences; this is the benefit I and most of you have derived from having chosen—while it still remains a valid option—a humanistic rather than a scientific field of study.
Literary texts and their philosophical correlates are as empirical as the realities of physics or biology, but at a higher level. In that they deal with the materials of human culture, we may say that they are inhabited by the sacred, that they are scenic and representational rather than worldly. In a word, they are uniquely human: anthropological in the fundamental sense of the term. Just as sacred and significant can be shown to be quasi-synonyms, so the domains of the sacred and the anthropological are fundamentally the same. We often recognize this synonymy in a moral sense in speaking of human life as “sacred.” But we must recognize that human life is more than that of each human individual: it is the life of our species, of what remains in the broadest sense the human community.
The fundamental truths of GA cannot be said to require a specific political implementation. There is certainly room for political disagreement, and even the idea of a “Left GA” is not implausible so long as we are able to come together in dialogue concerning our core ideas. Thus my analysis of the Left as motivated by the epistemology of resentment is not meant as a denigration but on the contrary, as the revelation of a potentially liberating gesture, one that in the Revolutionary era, to whatever excesses it may have led, overturned the notion that humanity should be understood as composed of castes some of which are intrinsically worthy of dominance over others. To what extent this critique can be said to justify the recent extreme developments of this epistemology is a question we should be happy to debate.
But to conclude on a positive note: the likely return of the West, and the US in particular, to a more skeptical attitude toward today’s “progressive” ideas seems likely to increase GA’s attractiveness to the academic world. So let us strive to maintain our faith in our hypothesis, not fearing to modify it when necessary—and in its eventual triumph.