Humanistic study is under threat today in our universities. With the decline of Europe-centered Western high culture, it is no longer clear why we need a host of separate departments named for the languages of middle-sized European states. No doubt these states and their interaction generated the modern market system that has now evolved into the much-feared global marketplace. But our historical respect for these mature national cultures cannot stand up to the politico-cultural pressure from others now in the process of creation or rapid evolution. In order to defend and preserve the humanities, we must make not a political but an intellectual argument for the study of the unique Western experiment in high culture. This requires that we theorize this concept in both its historical specificity and its anthropological generality; and this, in turn, can only be done by means of originary thinking.

Secular high culture has not exhausted its anthropological lessons for us, but we can no longer take these lessons for granted as a supplementary benefit of the study of canonical texts. We can only understand the uniqueness of our cultural experiment in relation to an originary model of esthetic experience. On the basis of such a model we can also begin to examine the cultural specificity of other civilizations (Indian, Persian, Chinese, Amerindian) and pre-state societies. I call this procedure originary analysis.

Originary analysis is not a methodology but a heuristic: a way of finding the anthropologically significant core of a text. Its single rule of thumb is to trace each category of one’s critical discourse to its root in the hypothesized originary event of language that inaugurates the deferral of violence through representation. To consider esthetic form as an end in itself, independently of its anthropological function, is mere idolatry. The ultimate model of every cultural operation is the originary emergence of the transcendent or “vertical” sign from the immanent or “horizontal” world of appetite. The end of cultural interpretation–providing a model of human desire as a means to defer violence–is no different from that of the cultural object it interprets.

Interpretation seeks to construct a cognitive or “reversible” model at the horizon of irreversible or revelatory esthetic experience. There are no fully “thematic” truths of the human for the same reason that there is no representation without paradox: the fact of formulating propositions about the human world modifies the world the proposition claimed to describe. Interpretation’s movement toward anthropological truth begins at the same moment to falsify it. We may not know whether God exists, but we know that paradox exists, which God’s existence alone could resolve.

We can only understand form in the context of more inclusive form. Originary analysis traces a given form back to a hypothetical model of the minimal and therefore most inclusive form of the human, the originary scene of language. The originary sign represents–designates and reproduces–and sanctifies–makes sacred and worships as already sacred–the communal object of desire, removing it from the arena of collective conflict. However intense appetites may have been before the emission of the sign, desire comes into being only with representation. The sign creates its object as object-of-desire at the same time as it re-presents it as always-already existing.

The relationship between form and content makes explicit the hierarchical relation of containment that is latent in the dichotomy of signifier and signified, signs and things, les mots et les chosesForm is our translation of Aristotle’s eidos, his praxis-oriented version of Plato’s idea. The word both doubles and contains the thing; on one hand, “chair” is a mere supplement to preexisting chairs, on the other, no chair can exist without Chair as its form. The easy positivist idea that language is just a more advanced version of DNA code fails to acknowledge that it is itself expressed in language but not in DNA code.

The domain of content is that of worldly desire, where we identify mimetically with an explicit or implicit human subject. But we also identify, in the realm of form, with the transcendental subject of the work, the “author,” whose goal is not to satisfy individual desire but to defer violence from the community. We can rely on our esthetic intuition to direct us to the crisis or crux in the content; but we must withdraw from this intuition to understand our formal identification with the work’s subject. The comic conjunction of form and content that satisfies both individual desire and community is a marvelous category error, a confusion of levels that makes us laugh. But the more profound lesson of desire is that the accomplishment of the form requires the tragic sacrifice of its worldly subject.

The artwork realizes as experience the paradox that otherwise might seem a plaything for philosophers. The heart of interpretation is examining how the work’s form is generated by its content, which generates the mimetic crisis out of which form emerges as its resolution. Tragedy requires the characters to suffer, but their suffering must not appear an arbitrary sacrifice imposed by the form; it must be motivated by the nature of their own desires. Yet no motivation of esthetic content can fully “justify,” or reinvent, esthetic form, which is always in the last analysis imposed by the communal complicity of author and audience. Hence Girard denounces tragedy as sacrificial, an act of arbitrary scapegoating. But its arbitrariness is that of the esthetic in general; the emergence of form from content is a leap of faith, just as is the originary emergence of the sign from the tension of potential mimetic conflict. We cannot deduce it; we can only tell stories about it. The minimal hypothesis of generative anthropology is an attempt to tell this story minimally as a hypothesis. (For Girard, the Passion is this minimal story: Christian faith or any other faith is belief in an originary hypothesis.)

Esthetic interpretation is the construction of an anthropology. Our reading of the artwork formulates an originary hypothesis because, to turn things around, the originary scene is the minimal model of all future scenes, narrated as the minimal model of all future stories. We tell the story so that we can experience once again how the sign can emerge from the thing, how the reality of appetite can take on the meaning of desire. But once the story is told, we think with and about it, as we began to think with and about the sign, in order to find in it a normative model of human conduct, an ethic, not out of our inherent “desire for self-knowledge,” but because of our crucial need to defer conflict. The first anthropology is ethics, and the first anthropological model is the originary symmetrical exchange of signs, the basis for reciprocal morality (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).

There is currently only one widely-received theory that claims to find originary meaning in cultural productions: that of Freud, turned toward representation by Lacan, who replaces the oral-anal-genital by the imaginary and the symbolic. The popularity of Freudian hermeneutics reflects both our need for a generative model that relates cultural phenomena to the fundamentally, minimally human, and our discomfort with such models outside the realm of individual development. We so fear to condemn other cultures as more primitive than ours that we have all but renounced the original project of ethnology–the defining field of anthropology: to provide insights into the originary form of human culture. (Only paleontology maintains this project, because it begins from ethology rather than ethnology.) Hence we prefer the mirror stage to the primal horde.

But human language and culture were not created by babies. To defend the humanities is to hypothesize that the creations of Western high culture reflect a higher level of human self-consciousness than the works of ritual-bound societies, just as Western science reflects a deeper understanding of the natural world. The danger in the current fad for cultural studies is not that it teaches students about popular culture, but that it teaches them to ignore the historical distinction between popular culture and high culture.

The only way to justify the literary curriculum of departments of “language and literature” is to affirm its unique value for the construction of what we will increasingly be calling anthropological models. To humanists who feel alienated by the theoretical climate of generative anthropology, I suggest they try explicating a few poems in the theoretical climate of their local social science departments.

In the works of high culture, the paradoxical tension between form and content reveals itself in an ironic self-consciousness of humanity as an open, dynamic, decentralizing enterprise. If we are unable to articulate this self-consciousness with a fundamental understanding of the human, we can only pray that a future generation able to do so will one day resuscitate the study of the Humanities.