Originary Hypothesis as Mobius Strip
The originary hypothesis repels the kind of initiatory revelatory “download” that is nevertheless the only way of understanding it. Eric Gans, and with him every participant in GA will insist that GA is not a faith or religion, and, of course, they are right—in a way it is the antithesis of faith and religion by disclosing the originary possibility of all faiths and religions. There are believers within GA who reconcile the originary hypothesis with their faith, but if you are taking the originary hypothesis literally, without any suspension or bracketing to allow for your specific faith tradition to also be taken literally, then you can only see your faith tradition as an approximation of a configuration you consider prior and irreducible to that tradition. At the same time, GA cannot claim to be an “Enlightenment” philosophy that stands outside of faith and “debunks” its pretensions—on the contrary, the implication of the originary hypothesis is that the faiths are truer than philosophy, and it’s not even close. But while philosophy and science allow us to speak of “approximation,” faith resists such an approach—if you’re not all in, you’re suspect, even to yourself. Nor can GA subordinate itself to faith and justify it, or paternalistically confer upon it a. kind of local legitimacy for those in need it of it, as philosophy can easily do (or have done to it). So, the originary hypothesis finds itself in the position of being both closest and furthest from any faith tradition, while remaining completely indigestible to philosophy and philosophy’s children, the human sciences. It’s like a perfectly materialist refutation of materialism, the one true faith masquerading as subversive heresy.
The originary hypothesis repels the kind of initiatory download that is nevertheless the only way of appropriating it insofar as it is unwilling or unable to take upon itself the burden of a new point of world origin—something inclusive of, and beyond, any faith; something that replaces all the shuffling around of Being and Becoming, social and individual, diachronic and synchronic, freedom and tyranny, etc., in philosophy, the human sciences and politics (and, while we’re at, all the categories of ethics and morality as well). I have often been frustrated by what seem to me Gans’s rather arbitrary and astonishing limiting of the scope and implications of GA (if you scroll through his Chronicles for the occasional discussion of what “GA is for,” it always sounds suspiciously like what Eric Gans does—some literary and cultural criticism, some refereeing of middle brow theism/atheism debates, some apologetics for liberal democracy) but I wonder whether he may have, at some point, finding himself virtually alone in what could not provide the sustenance of a “faith,” simply recoiled at the implications of what he had come up with. And he’s too “democratic” and unpretentious to seed his thinking with an esoteric dimension that might leave some tracks toward a more ambitious GA than the one he has been satisfied with.
To take on the originary hypothesis, you have to be prepared to be disreputable from all sides—an atheist to believers, a mere speculator to philosophers and “scientists”—and simply unacceptably arrogant—how dare one sweep aside and allow back in only if thoroughly reframed all of human knowledge on the say so of some French professor at UCLA? There is a powerful and, indeed, I think irrefutable (I’ve never seen someone even make an attempt at refutation) logic to the originary hypothesis, as long as you are willing to start with the undeniable fact (one even attested to by Aristotle!) that human beings are especially imitative. If you accept that human beings are imitative, can you set a limit to imitation—what does any human do that can’t be traced back to the imitation of another human? And if we’re mimetic all the way down, can anyone deny that imitation leads to rivalry (to other things as well, but rivalry can destroy those other things and so must be addressed)? And how could one deny the sheer elegance of the originary hypothesis’s solution to this dilemma—a form of imitation, on the boundary between “attention” and “intention,” that reverses the trajectory of an appropriative gesture by converting that gesture into one of aborted appropriation? And what better “explanation” of the problematic distinctiveness of language, where we have to account for how it’s possible that we all can mean the “same” thing in speaking words that have no necessary relation to the things they are about? How could language have emerged other than in an event?
Still, both Nietzscheans and Nietzsche’s last men can take a sniff of this and not particularly care for its odor. It’s too social, too unflattering, too confining, resistant to the appropriation of any movement that needs something like a “myth,” i.e., its own sacrifices and the cover-up of those sacrifices. Why “believe” in it? Nothing particularly compels one too—certainly no social pressure, or the competition for recruiting followers or getting grants. It asks for no sacrifice, and, in fact, exposes too clearly what we’re asking for when we demand sacrifice. The originary hypothesis must, I think, prefer comedy to tragedy, spectacles in which blood thirst is averted rather than indulged. Unless you want to treat GA as another school of literary criticism that offers the best nth reading of some canonical text, you have to let it dispossess you—it can’t stand alongside anything you think that has not been revisited and revised thoroughly through the hypothesis. This is why established people with a publicly or institutionally confirmed identity are extremely unlikely to take up with it—you have, I think, to be on the margins of some field that seems to you in need of refounding. What the originary hypothesis offers in that case is the miraculization of the world—the very existence of the human is a miracle, constantly renewed, always on trial; institutions, names, words, each and every human practice is illuminated by the originary aura of the yet to be hypothesized event that allowed for its inauguration against the odds.
I find myself “applying” the originary hypothesis with increasing literalness and inflexibility. Every name can only be a commemoration of some deferred violence—every word is the Name of God. Since we are fundamentally mimetic beings, all social organization (and “ethics” and “morality”) can be nothing more than emulation—the selection and dutiful study of models, for which study we emulate other models. We are all of us completely of the center—there is no autonomy or freedom relative to the center, even if expanded participation in the center produces the kinds of things we call “freedom.” Since listening to the center as it tells us to not in indulge in the spargmos closest at hand and lie about our noble motives in doing so, all that matters is preserving clear lines of communication with and continuity of the center—this means calling upon the center, imploring the occupant of any center, to take upon himself the responsibility to see to his successor, selecting as his successor the one best suited to in turn select a successor and so on in perpetuity; and, meanwhile, to model the kind of activity that such a singularized succession in perpetuity would need to rely upon. Everything we do is a reading of imperatives coming from the center, so as we speak in declaratives there is nothing else for us to do other than get those imperatives right and embed in our declaratives further imperatives petitioning the current occupant to clarify the kinds of knowing, wanting and doing that will make us better servants and forerunners to yet better ones. Language, then, is fundamentally prayer. In turn, you turn yourself into a center, creating practices that imply a model of selecting successors, and a mode of engagement with others in which we participate in succession. There’s no room for the history of political concepts here, even if one might find approximations and models of practice here and there—what can freedom, equality, nationality, tyranny, rights, or even monarchy have to do with any of this, even if one or the other might be pragmatically broached here or there? We have no idea of the range of organizational forms that will be possible, and can only maintain a readiness of hypotheticality, treating language itself as an inexhaustible source of practices. Just follow those forms that are the most successionist and see if you can help make them more so: anything you say posits a figure positioned to enact some practice on some future scene imaginable now in only the most preliminary way. But any social form or practice, say one lying ready at hand, might be promisingly successionist, and contributions to any of them can’t be excluded in advance.
Practices are simply events on scenes, with the event being the reconstruction of the scene in accord with emerging commands of the center that have themselves resulted from the last scenic redesign. Hypotheses are the opening of space for scenic design practices, which situate us all for new practices. A hypothesis is the inversion of the myth: the myth narrates an exchange with the center so as to foreground the continuity of the community by localizing in a target the resentments that threaten to tear it apart, while the hypothesis is a kind of machine for generating potential scenes on which we can try out various ways of following resentments to their consequences and stepping athwart them. The practice/hypothesis nexus places us always on a scene, which is perhaps the most anti-philosophical part of the originary hypothesis since philosophy imagines itself on a kind of sceneless scene that can be sustained as long as everyone maintains the conventions of the discourse. But we’re all on a scene right now, a scene embedded in other scenes, and your performance on one scene brings other scenes into view. While your duty is to sustain them all, doing your part to construct the largest stage around the most compelling center is the best way of helping to contain them all and maintain consistency amongst your practices on all of them.
When I discuss the originary hypothesis and the unlimited fields of inquiry it opens up (and which can never be shut down unless the scene itself collapses) I like to provide “proof of concept” by working on a particular concept within GA. This is really the “faith” bound up in the hypothesis—that there will always be new things at the center to draw forth further signs and scenes from us—you can’t really be a nihilist because you still have to maintain the scene on which you nihilize, which must be done within language. “Resentment” has been a kind of sticking point for me for a while—it’s an absolutely central concept, mimetic and scenic and paradoxical insofar as pointing out the resentment of others implicates you in the space of resentment (why does their resentment bother you so much to comment on it?). In Gans’s work, resentment is sometimes destructive and sometimes creative, functioning as both sublimation and the desire that is sublimated. All resentment is toward the center, and yet it seems like we’re really resenting the guy next to us, receiving favors that are rightfully our own. What is resentment—a “feeling”? But what comes from a feeling, other than more feeling—as feelings, resentments can be expressed or suppressed in many ways, so what can really be said about it? “Bitter indignation at being treated unfairly.” That definition seems to attribute certain knowledge to resentment—it doesn’t refer to a “belief” that one has been treated unfairly. But wouldn’t the (inevitable) lack of unanimity regarding the unfairness of your treatment further add to that unfairness wile, also, making it less a source of knowledge and therefore more suspect because now spread in an unfocused way beyond the original treatment? Here as well, “resentment” in GA covers this whole, ambivalent ground. Is resentment appeased by the reception of fair treatment in response to its expression, or does this just prove the truth and value of the resentment? Would completely fair treatment, assuming we could imagine and manage it, eliminate resentment, or would the threshold for what counts as “unfair” simply get lowered—in which case “fairness” is not the point at all. (Has any philosophy or human science tried to get to the bottom of this line of questioning, which reduces any other line if inquiry to near irrelevance—which I say at the risk of arousing resentment, because nothing can be/seem more unfair than having one’s central concerns minimized.) When is resentment energizing and when paralyzing?
Our recourse must be to learn to identify traces of resentment in the marks it leaves on language. Here’s the hypothesis I’d like to work out—the linguistic form of resentment is the comparison. To compare things is to reduce them to common measure and eliminate their uniqueness as signs and things—it is to encourage others to find more “points” of comparison in order to further reduce them. This line of thinking has some debts to Nietzsche and to Evola’s “reign of quantity.” But it’s an originary, not merely modern, phenomenon, and therefore shares terrain with a kind of homage to the center. If we strive to reduce things to a common measure it is because of our mimetic realization that we have been reduced to a common measure with all sharing our space and its objects of desire and its center, and so we try to take over the equalization to which we have been subjected and control it. So, all resentment takes the form of asserting one thing is like another. But the kind of comparison I’m equating with (comparing to) resentment is the kind seeks to compel the similar objects to be completely contained within that field. There’s another way of finding likenesses, between all things, even the most distant and seemingly unlike, and that’s as a way of highlighting the otherness of all things to everything else (itself a kind of likeness) within an oscillation between same and other. In that case, we keep finding, indicating, acting on, assuming, intimating, likenesses between things while occasionally organizing ourselves around an assertion of the sameness of some of them, for some purpose, against a background of othernesses. Resentment wants all things to be more and more like each other, in pursuit of an absolute sameness that remains forever beyond reach. “Unfairness” is always someone not being “like” enough to me or to others. So, linguistically, resentment takes the form of an insistence on intensifying likeness within a potentially endless series of likenesses measured only against the next likeness pointed out. This obsession with likeness unto unreachable sameness shows up against, and is countered by, the practice of enlikening within the oscillation of same and other, as new lines of likeness that interfere with the convergence of likenesses are drawn. If everything is like everything else in ever new ways we create a kind of world scene and a single unfolding world event that is always happening, and the central imperative is to keep it happening. This is a kind of world-play, with ingredients of nonsense and satire strongly mixed in; it’s the praxis/hypothesis writ large, and the answer to the bitterness of resentment, even when “justified” (if there’s real oppression going on, that will be shaken up a bit as well).
It occurs to me that in entering the world, the originary hypothesis confronts another problem, this one entirely of the making of its inventor and propagators (this one not completely excluded) thus far. Here, Girardian mimetic theory has something GA lacks: for Girard, knowledge of our mimetic desires must be learned and earned—his first book in mimetic theory, Desire, Deceit and the Novel reads novelists like Proust and Dostoevsky as confronting and painfully working through the mimetic desires that prompted them to write and limited them as writers—their novels are a revelatory working through of this learning and earning of what is a kind of divine knowledge. Gans has not only not insisted upon a similar ascesis as a prerequisite for knowledge of the originary hypothesis, but has explicitly desisted from doing so (I’d have to do some searching to find where). But maybe some kind of overcoming of resentment is necessary if one is not just to “understand” and reproduce the originary hypothesis, but to “inscribe” it in, through the self one carries through, the culture. Maybe this is why we can see in much GA work, at least in my view, a preference for conformity and respectability over invention and theoretical adventurousness—hardly anyone working within GA has shown any desire to leave the little niche carved out decades ago. I don’t say Gans didn’t have good reasons for this refusal of ascesis—I think he may have wanted to resist the kind of cult-like devotion often seen in Girard’s followers, and, even more important, the fact that the originary hypothesis sees anthropogenesis as non-violent, the kind of “drama” appropriate for the Girardian scene might seem out of place in Gans’s more “comic” scene. But there can be no real knowledge without inscription and initiation—without these practices, you get another school of literary criticism. The path I’ve carved within originary thought has foregrounded our being constituted and “held” by the center for this reason—if the conclusion to GA is that we’re all free agents on the market, who needs GA? If we are only “actionable selves” insofar as we clarify, direct, intensify, fix , refine, enact and textualize our attention on the ever changing and ramifying, differentially occupied center—well, then, GA or anthropomorphics, becomes a genuine discipline in the fullest sense of the term.