For Michael Caplan

Over my thirty years or so of Internet postings of these Chronicles, I have acquired a couple of pen pals among fellow Jews slightly younger than myself able to relate to what I have called my “Bronx romantic” persona.

Michael Caplan is a writer interested in Jungian thought, whose particular concern is with the work of Wolfgang Giegerich and James Hillman, who have sought to develop Jung’s system of “depth psychology” in rigorous terms. Given the therapeutic origins of such conceptualizations of the human psyche, I think they are best judged on their effectiveness in dealing with their patients’ mental problems, but of course any such theories also have broader theoretical implications.

Without getting into the specific issues raised by Jungian theory, I was struck by a passage in a text by Philip Kime that Michael sent me; this is a preparatory draft for his article in Essays on “The Soul’s Logical Life” in the Work of Wolfgang Giegerich: Psychology as the Discipline of Interiority, Routledge, 2023, which also includes an essay by Caplan himself. Unfortunately the excerpts below are not from a “quotable” published text; I refer to it solely for the basic idea it contains.

First, this statement excluding evolutionary thinking from what Kime calls “psychology proper,” which is more specifically depth psychology in the Jungian sense; I am sure that Kime has no desire to quibble about the pre-linguistic aspects of what is studied in psychology departments:

My intention is to elucidate as best I can the element(s) of psychology proper which establish a domain outside of the evolutionary model. (my emphasis)

The heart of his argument is found in the following paragraph:

The reason that we must have a structural approach is that the battle over content and origins has already been lost. It would be a brave, perhaps simply foolish man who would challenge the evolutionary model on its home territory. To perhaps try to tell a story of the genesis of the psychological which progresses entirely outside of modern evolutionary theory is a hopeless task. There is simply too much evidence that much of what we call psychological (even properly psychological in the Giegerich sense) is intimately related by successive stages to phenomena which have credible, well researched and often genetically supported models. Evolutionary theory has a monopoly–a rapidly growing monopoly–on genesis stories of all aspects of human life; and I really do mean all aspects. It is a mistake, in my opinion, to try to reserve in principle a space for genesis stories of aspects of human life which one would like to protect from evolutionary explanation for perhaps sentimental or half-formed theoretical reasons. Give it all up, the genesis stories are a lost cause, they were always already won by empirical, data-driven science since its inception and it has simply been just a matter of the calculations catching up with the idea, since at least the time of Leibniz and Newton. (my emphasis)

Being only superficially familiar with this domain of psychological reflection, I can only speak of it from the standpoint of Generative Anthropology, whose humanistic position with respect to evolution it flatly contradicts. But to read between the lines, this denial seems to me based not so much on the substance of the question as on what the author sees as empirical science’s conviction, right or wrong, but above all, unanimously held within the scientific community, that it alone has the right to talk about evolutionary phenomena. “Give it all up, the genesis stories are a lost cause” is not the way one presents a rational argument, but a reaction to an overwhelming preponderance of opinion that it would be a waste of time to challenge—for example, if one wants to publish in the standard professional organs. I take into account here that this text is still a draft and that in writing for publication the author might well either avoid such claims or express them in more “academic” terms.

Now as readers of these Chronicles must be aware, the whole point of GA is to deal directly with the question of evolution, of “genesis stories,” as what I believe is the only way to understand the core of human “psychology” in the sense in which the term is used here, that is, as a psychology that takes into account the human use of language and all that it implies. No doubt to read the literature on language origin, which I have done over the years, (see e.g. Chronicles 175 and 627) is a frustrating task precisely because empirical science cannot propose “genesis stories” of the sort capable of providing understanding of the phenomenon of human language and its implications, including notably the intuition of the sacred.

Although the appearance of language and the sacred must be described as revelatory, the full consciousness of its implications cannot be assumed to have accompanied it from the beginning, and some of my early statements of the hypothesis that suggested it corresponded to a singular historical event are not sustainable. But once the sign has been discovered, a fuller consciousness of it, which could not be present at the outset, would be bound to develop, precisely because of the element of deferral/différance that must be present from the outset in order that the sign have its peace-bringing effect. Whence not merely the heuristic usefulness but the necessity that the originary hypothesis present itself in terms that in the actual historical sequence of events cannot all have occurred simultaneously. For the important thing, what will select this behavior as against others, is its success in permitting an orderly system of distribution that does away with the difficulties of the old serial one; and whatever the degree of improvement realized by the first use of the sign, it will necessarily lead to a consciousness of signing (as opposed to signaling), and subsequently to something like the sequence of syntactical evolution proposed in my 1981 The Origin of Language.

I have every sympathy for Professor Kime’s position, having read a good number of the articles on the subject of the same sort that he has. I attempted around the turn of the century to correspond with Terrence Deacon, the author of The Symbolic Species, and was struck by what amounted to his disavowal of the chapter in which he speculated that language may have originated in the context of a marriage-like coupling, which would become necessary on the one hand as neotenous children became more dependent on maternal care, and on the other, as the improvement of weaponry would result in longer hunting expeditions, keeping couples separated and making increasingly necessary a formal mark of their union. Obviously the originary hypothesis is “more minimal” than this, but what struck me in Deacon’s reply was that when pressed he viewed this chapter—although the longest in the book—as an unserious speculation rather than a hypothesis, and by implication was not interested in learning of any attempts to sharpen it.

Nor, to my knowledge, has anyone in the field done so since. No one has challenged my hypothesis, but all have tacitly agreed to ignore it. And reading Kime’s text makes it clear that the slot of “evolutionary” approaches to language origin has indeed been fully occupied by these empirical studies that take no position on the great cultural issues raised by language that define “the human” in its uniqueness and vast difference from other living creatures. Whence the necessity invoked by Kime of separating psychology as the study of human (self)-consciousness from any question of natural selection.

But from my standpoint, au contraire, what is essential about human language is indeed the kernel revealed in the hypothetical originary event, however messily this “event” may have been exemplified in reality. For once the collective emission of the sign permitted a more or less “equal” and peaceful division of the desired object, it would be “selected,” by not a genetic, but a behavioral process. And this original selection having taken place, the process of natural selection would continue to operate, as it still does (or would in the absence of DEI) to favor those whose use of signs is most skillful.

What is more, the scenic nature of language and its coevality with the sacred are phenomena that only a minimal hypothesis can grasp in their emergent state. I freely admit that I am far from having developed the full implications of the scenic element of human culture, but GA provides a minimal basis for a new perspective on sociology focused on the phenomenon alluded to by such terms as “frame” or “scenario,” but never grasped at its origin in the scenic nature of all “cultural” interactions among humans, from formal ceremonies and rituals to casual conversations.

As I pointed out in an essay a few years ago (“The Screenic” in Mimetic Theory and Film, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) the extraordinary impact of the introduction of smartphones on social relations can only be understood as a demonstration of the effortless passage from the scenic to what I called the screenic, beginning with the Lumière brothers’ first cinema showings in 1895 and now available to nearly every individual at nearly every moment of his existence. People are glued to their cell phones because the screen shows them a pocket-sized version of the scene of human culture.

It goes without saying that I have not sought to draw from the originary hypothesis the foundations of what could be called a “depth psychology.” The problems of individual self-consciousness of the sort that gave rise to the psychoanalytic movement cannot reasonably be addressed in the absence of a personal, therapeutic familiarity with these pathologies that mere reading can hardly provide. Thus I would not venture to speculate as to whether GA would suggest a new focus for such explorations, although the idea that depth psychology might find inspiration in the originary hypothesis is one that I certainly have no desire to dismiss. As I see it, GA is indeed a “new way of thinking,” and I can only welcome scholars and thinkers who attempt to apply it in new domains.

In the therapeutic domain, Girard’s focus on the mimetic basis of desire has certainly had some success, of which Michel Oughourlian’s psychiatric practice and writings (see in particular his The Puppet of Desire, The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession and Hypnosis, tr. Eugene Webb, Stanford UP, 1991) provide a good example. When dealing with a problematic desire, the watchword cherchez le médiateur is definitely a useful starting point.

Both René Girard and myself began our careers as professors of literature because, as I have explained elsewhere, for a generation or two in the postwar era the study of literary texts became a if not the privileged domain in which what we may call the foundations of the human soul could best be observed. Thus the anthropological doctrines that we subsequently derived from our literary studies were by no means external to their original object; in the era of “French theory,” as previously to a lesser extent in those of the “New Criticism” or “Russian Formalism,” the study of literary texts sought to grasp the relationship between the human individual, community, and world, often along with the sense of the sacred that unites them, through the explication of works judged to possess enduring anthropological value.

The decline of this enterprise with the end of the Cold War and the illusory history-ending triumph of Western civilization cannot be explained as a mere matter of fashion. No doubt the problems of Western culture have reached a stage of crisis at which we no longer have the time to seek for their solutions in textual exegesis. But as a consequence, I would maintain all the more emphatically that our originary anthropology grounded on Girard’s insight into the key human problematic of mimetic desire offers our civilization, and humanity in general, the best chance of escaping the nightmare of the “end of history.”